In 1943, when Columbia’s legendarily despotic chief Harry Cohn lent his top female star to Republic to make a romantic comedy with its rising male star John Wayne, Jean Arthur had a string of successful and very funny comedies (The Devil and Miss Jones, Talk of the Town, The More the Merrier), as well as having played the female lead in two of Frank Capra’s best-loved movies (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Arthur exerted a pixieish charm with an odd mix of the prim and the brassy.
As the title character in “A Lady Takes a Chance,” she plays Molly Trousdale, a stylish New Yorker. She is first seen—wearing a very large hat—boarding a transcontinental bus. Each of her three suitors brings her presents and bid her very reluctant adieux. With such ardent male attention, her seatmate is puzzled about why she is leaving. The back stories of her three relationships is never filled in, but it seems more that she is not in love with any of them than that she can’t make up her mind. But maybe she is taking a trip to see the country to clear her mind and make a choice.
Within ten minutes of the opening, the bus tour members are at a rodeo. Molly is at the edge of the stands trying to take a snapshot when a cowboy is thrown over the fence and lands on top of her. The cowboy (and the “chance” of the title) is John Wayne, called (in this movie and offscreen) “Duke.” He is drawn to her, but is used to rodeo groupies and saloon denizens and doesn’t know how to talk to a “lady.”
He takes her to a saloon, where many female friends flirt with him and Molly looks dignified, if pained. They try again and he wins $238 playing craps with her blowing on the dice. Listening closely to dice she is given to roll herself, she realizes they are loaded and reduces the all-or-nothing bet to $1. The Duke is impressed. He is also impressed by her downing a potent drink called “cactus milk.” Soon there is a barroom brawl, followed by offending Molly after she has missed her bus.
The brawl, the bandiage, the offenses, etc. are all standard issue 1930s and 40s Hollywood issue. The high point for viewers and the low point for Molly is a night on the desert, freaked out by coyote howls and being so cold she steals Duke’s horse’s blanket.
In a motel that is remarkably well stocked with everything Molly needs to whip up a romantic candlelit dinner, Duke recoils at being snared by domesticity—drawing the line at wearing an apron to help with washing the dishes. He is a “don’t’ fence me in” man who enjoys many woman, not (he thinks) a “one-woman man.” Indeed, his “better half” (the Duke’s label) is Waco, one of those grizzled, maternal cooks so common in midcentury westerns. Waco is played by Charles Winninger who created the role of Cap’n Andy in the original stage production of “Show Boat” and repeated the role in the 1936 film version. Screen formula requires Molly to supplant Waco, though actually speaking of it as a “divorce” as the Duke does, borders on risqué for that era.
The role of Duke makes few demands on John Wayne, who is charming and restive enough. Although he was a star already in 1943, he was a star in formulaic westerns churned out by a third-rate studio (Republic). The films that would make him a superstar (The Angel and the Badman, Fort Apache, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Sands of Iwo Jima) were all made after World War II…by which time Arthur was free of her Columbia contract and very choosy about roles and directors.
“A Lady Takes a Chance” has some stock rodeo footage and cheesy studio sets. There is nothing notable visually. The screenplay (by Robert Arsey) is formulaic sitcom, directed by journeyman William A. Seiter, who directed more than a hundred movies I’ve never heard of along with the Astaire-Rogers vehicle “Roberta,” the Marx Brothers’s antics in “Room Service,” and “One Touch of Venus,” Ava Gardner’s first leading role.
Molly must have been very skilled at packing, since she has only one small suitcase and many outfits (need I add that they emerge without a wrinkle?), as well as at motel haute cuisine.
Arthur and her western sidekicks are charming, but were in better screen vehicles.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray