“Once upon a time…It was so long ago that people drove sixty miles an hour and skidded their tires, and drank three cups of coffee all at once, and ate big gobs of butter, and there were more fellows around than there were girls, and everyone was having a good time without knowing it. That’s when our story happened. Away back then…in 1938.”
By 1943 when A Lady Takes a Chance was made, the United States had been engulfed in World War II for almost two years and, on the movie front, had experienced a succession of serious and propagandistic films designed to steel the nation’s war resolve. Of course, comedy films didn’t disappear during the early war years; it just seemed that way sometimes. In 1943, however, the tide of the war had been if not turned, at least stemmed, and the time seemed right to inject a lighter tone in some of the year’s films. The results included such pleasing efforts as The More The Merrier (Columbia, directed by George Stevens), Heaven Can Wait (Fox, directed by Ernst Logitech), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Paramount, directed by Preston Sturges). Amongst these heavy hitters, a minor effort like RKO’s A Lady Takes a Chance was pretty much overlooked, although there were some kind words from the New York Times and from one of the country’s leading critics, James Agee. With John Wayne and Jean Arthur co-starring, the film actually managed to be RKO’s third highest grosser of the year, but thereafter faded into virtual oblivion. Certainly it never became one of the films normally included in any John Wayne retrospective.
A Lady Takes a Chance is one of a number of independent productions from the 1940s and early 1950s that, even though distributed by some of the major studios, managed to fall into the public domain and were appropriated by Republic Pictures for home video release. Artisan, the owner of the Republic catalog, has now provided an opportunity to see the film once more, with its recent DVD release.
New Yorker Mollie Truesdale is heading west on a bus tour advertised as providing “14 breathless days of romance and adventure.” As she leaves, three persistent suitors make a nuisance of themselves, perhaps providing another reason why she’s taking the tour. Once out west, the bus makes a scheduled stop in Fairfield where the annual rodeo is in progress. While Mollie is watching the bronco busting, one of the riders is bucked off into the stands and lands on top of her. In this way, Mollie meets Duke Hudkins.
Mollie is immediately smitten by Duke, and the two go to a local saloon for a beer. A game of dice leads to a potent drink and a bar-room brawl, with Duke and Mollie eventually ending up on top of a haystack. The two trade stories for so long that Mollie misses her bus. Forced to stay in town, Mollie accepts the offer of Duke’s room at the hotel for the night, although she has to fight off Duke’s amorous intentions. The next day, she attempts to hitch a ride to Gold City where she can catch her bus on its return journey. Still annoyed at Duke’s advances the previous night, Mollie rejects several offers of a ride from Duke and his sidekick Waco before finally accepting after other rides leave her stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Once in Gold City, Mollie realizes that Duke is the guy for her and makes a play for him with a home-cooked meal. Her efforts seem to have been a failure, though, for Duke angrily leaves after dinner, insisting that he doesn’t want to be hooked. When the returning bus pulls out of Gold City the next morning, Mollie looks in vain for Duke before boarding and sadly heading home — apparently returning to the same old routine she had left just a short time ago.
The bus is newer, the destination and circumstances are different, but there’s much in this film that’s derivative of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night right down to Jean Arthur’s use (à la Claudette Colbert) of a little bit of leg as a way to hitch a ride. The bus is much less of a character in itself and the film lacks the wealth of supporting talent that Capra was always able to marshal for his films, but the basic premise is still serviceable and provides a good framing device for bringing Mollie and Duke together. Of course, A Lady Takes a Chance was never conceived as being a film of the same scale as Capra’s classic, but it does make the most of its modest means.
Principal among those means was the participation of John Wayne and Jean Arthur. Wayne, of course, was a star of action and adventure pictures and even though he had demonstrated some affinity for repartee with the likes of Marlene Dietrich in 1942’s The Spoilers, he was far from having proven any aptitude for romantic comedy. Jean Arthur, on the other hand, was the romantic heroine of many of the 1930s’ best comedies and had excelled as recently as in The More The Merrier. A Lady Takes a Chance would prove to be a turning point for both. For Wayne, it showed that he had a flair for more than straight action. He demonstrated an ability to deliver comic dialogue and engaged in comic timing effectively. In a modest sense, the film paved the way for later comedic successes involving Wayne with Maureen O’Hara (such as The Quiet Man and McClintock). For Jean Arthur on the other hand, the film would be her last comedy; in fact, there were only three more films, period, from Jean Arthur before, in a penchant for privacy, she settled into a virtual 30-year retreat from the public eye. While she was good in A Lady Takes a Chance, in some ways, it was a denial of the strong, independent, romantic heroines and comediennes she had specialized in. Seeing Jean Arthur’s Mollie stooping to making dinner as a come-on to John Wayne’s Duke was just a little dispiriting when considered in that light.
That said, the film is a compact little comedy that passes the time amiably (only 86 minutes). Direction by reliable Hollywood veteran William A. Seiter is brisk and businesslike. Wayne and Arthur have some decent support from the likes of Charles Winninger as Waco, Phil Silvers as the tour bus host, and Grady Sutton, Hans Conried, and Grant Withers, who are amusing as Mollie’s three New York suitors. Given the film’s entertainment value, all we have to worry about now is getting a decent transfer on DVD.
I found it rather amusing that Artisan felt it necessary to include the Macrovision logo on the back of the case. Why they should be worried about anybody wanting to somehow copy this pathetic transfer is beyond me. This is actually the first of four recently-released Artisan classic titles that I’ve viewed, but if Artisan’s efforts on it are any indication, I’m going to be disappointed in the others. The image transfer is little better than a public domain VHS effort. Poor contrast, softness, insipid blacks, riddled with speckles, scratches, and jumps — if this is what Artisan intends to deliver on DVD for its lesser Republic properties, then the sooner they unload them on someone who’ll give them the care they deserve the better.
The sound track is supposedly a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix, but it sounds like the original mono to me. Perhaps I should say I wish it sounded like the original mono. It’s hard to tell with all the hiss, pops, and distortion throughout. Of course, there’s no subtitling.
And also of course, there are no supplements whatsoever.
A Lady Takes a Chance is no masterpiece of the silver screen, but it is a pleasant little item that showed that John Wayne had a bit of a flair for romantic comedy, especially when teamed with a compatible leading lady like Jean Arthur. Too bad Artisan apparently isn’t interested in giving this sort of film a real chance on DVD. They’d rather pretend they’ve done something special by trumpeting “digitally mastered” and “stereo surround” on the back of the case. Actually, they seem to have done nothing other than throw out a terrible transfer as a sop to classic film enthusiasts. When knowledgeable fans don’t line up to buy, then they’ll be able to say “see, nobody’s interested in these old films” and lock them back in the vault.