Lady in a Jam – 1942
Irene Dunne starred in several of the best screwball comedies ever made: Theodora Goes Wild, My Favorite Wife and The Awful Truth. Seeing her in the mediocre Lady in a Jam is jarring. We hear her sparkling, mocking delivery in her lines as in these other (better) films, showing her ability to twist a simple statement like "Isn't science wonderful?" with her unique inflection it becomes the sardonic "isn't science absurd," but this special talent of hers cannot change the flat and unfunny to funny in this 78 minute movie.
The plot seems ready-made for screwball humor: Psychiatrist Patric Knowles (as Doctor Enright) is determined to fix the flighty, shallow, and suddenly bankrupt rich girl Jane Palmer (Irene Dunne). Following a sheriff's sale that auctions off her belongings, plunged from wealth to destitution, he drives her out to Arizona (he masquerades as a chauffeur that she hires in desperation) where she has gone to stay with an Aunt who has possession of a barren gold mine.
There's no problem with the cast, it's loaded with veteran comedy talent: Ralph Bellamy, Eugene Pallette, Samuel S. Hinds and Charles Lane, among other recognizable faces, but they can't fix the writing by saying unfunny things in a funny way, and the limits on talent to reshape inferior dialogue is on display over and over (and over) again.
Strangely, the timing and pacing of a good screwball film is here, and the writers* are constantly hurling new cracks at us from every direction as if following a timer, but, again, the jokes aren't very good. In the end, we've got a standard three-way-romance between Dunne, Bellamy, and Knowles, but the story writing can't support it and we're not able to understand why Dunne (who goes through a massive, sudden improvement in personal character as soon as she reaches Arizona) shows any interest in either guy she's been assigned to. The story tells us that her affection is spurred by the fact the psychiatrist (Knowles) smacked her across the face during her earlier "arrogant" phase and this is an inspiration for love. Such a springboard for romance seems very iffy, to say the least.
Once we're in Arizona, Ralph Bellamy appears on horseback in Cowboy regalia. He's an old childhood friend who gets one look at the adult Jane Palmer (Dunne) and is immediately re-smitten. To show off his singing-cowboy skills, Bellamy launches into My Darlin' Nellie's Grave, a morose tune that Bellamy fills with off-key vocals while strumming a guitar and it may have been meant as cutting satire of singin' cowboy movies, but because so much humor falls flat so often in Lady in a Jam, it's hard to say what the bad crooning is supposed to mean other than we're to marvel at how badly Bellamy is off-key. Considering Bellamy gets several more showcases to sing badly as this story carries on, and Irene Dunne, easily one of the best singers in Hollywood films of the 1930s, doesn't sing anything here, it shows you how backwards a film Lady in a Jam is. Director Gregory La Cava (who directed the vastly superior My Man Godfrey just five years earlier) can't do much to fix this except to shoot quality sets featuring a hospital, a mansion, a city, a roadside travel camp, and then on location in Arizona which shows off some nice cowboy stunt riding and roping. It's all for naught, the whole film is in a "jam."
*The writing credit goes to Eugene Thackrey, Francis M. Cockrell, and Otho Lovering
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Original page October 14, 2021 | Updated June 9, 2022