Irene Dunne Leaves the Sheltered side in Search of Screwball gold



Lady in a Jam”, as a title, does and doesn’t adequately represent Lady in a Jam, director Gregory La Cava’s past-its-prime screwball comedy by way of Arizona.  Irene Dunne earns and takes top billing as the titular lady, one Jane Palmer.  Jane is a loopy old-money heiress who’s gone broke.  She’s become so untethered from the real world that she makes a social event out of her everything-must-go estate auction.  She’s in a financial jam but is the last one to register its crunch.

Jane is pursued by New York City psychiatrist Dr. Enright (Patric Knowles), who has been convinced to take the job of evaluating her by her flummoxed estate executor (Eugene Pallatte).  Seeing how La Cava very much seems to be attempting to manufacture that Bringing Up Baby (1938) Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant chemistry (a film that was initially collectively rejected, but perhaps La Cava “got it” at the time?), it must be said that this is no Bringing Up Baby.  For starters, Knowles is no Grant (but then, who is?), opting instead to play everything as far too grounded when injections of wackiness are desperately needed.  Dunne talks fast, but no one else does.  Any spark in the dialogue is sparse.  Although La Cava, having been an animator and animation studio manager in the earliest days of that medium’s industrialization, knows how to keep things moving in the face of absurd complexity and busyness, Lady in a Jam is simply altogether short on big laughs.  

It could simply be that Dunne’s character isn’t exactly the most relatable or likable person.  (A wealthy lady who doesn’t know what a driver’s license is when she’s called on the carpet for smashing up other cars, which she deflects blame for?  This soon after the Great Depression?  Cry everyone a river).  Neither of those factors- lack of relatability and likeability- necessarily need to be problems, though Lady in a Jam lacks the substantive wherewithal to use them to its advantage.  Instead, it makes its most interesting decision to chuck all semblance of the typical screwball comedy high life, and instead spend the second half of the movie with Jane’s rustic relatives in the remote Arizona desert.  

If Lady in a Jam can boast any kind of historical novelty, it’s this abrupt mid-movie shift from opulence to a Western-esque dusty desert setting.  Jane recalls from her childhood that her grandparents had a gold mine on their property.  “A couple of buckets ought to be enough!”, she confidently tells Enright, who gets dragged along.  While the good doctor simultaneously is pulling-his-hair-out frustrated and falling in love with Jane, Jane must spend the rest of the film warding off the cornpone advances of Stanley, her singing cowboy/childhood sweetheart, played with good-sport enthusiasm by Ralph Bellamy.  

This Blu-ray edition from KL Studio Classics has a slightly longer running time (just over eighty-two minutes) than stated on the package or IMDb (seventy-eight minutes).  Apparently the shorter cut is the more common version, though this is obviously the more complete cut.  No substantive reason for the variance nor charting of any differences is given.  While this disc doesn’t look half bad, it’s hard to imagine that it looks a whole lot better than previous DVD editions might.  As far as black & white movies go, it’s a rather grey film- the black levels don’t seem as deep as they could be.  The sound is crisp and clear.

On the newly recorded audio commentary, filmmaker Allan Arkush (Get Crazy) and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer welcome viewers to their “Lady in a Jam-boree”.  It’s a lively, fact-filled track filled with good discussion, although one needs to stay alert to keep up.  Near the end, Arkush voices appreciation for the quality of the Blu-ray’s transfer, countering my own assessment a few sentences ago.  He and Kremer obviously have a list of names they’ve researched and plan to discuss, though Arkush keeps interjecting, “Let’s go back to La Cava!”  Indeed, there’s a lot to say about the venerable comedy director and his outside-the-box approaches to production. Dunne, however, classy and beloved, is easily the second most discussed individual.  

Lady in a Jam is a comedy that gets off to a rickety start, finds its footing, then loses it once and for all in the desert.  Dunne, playing it gleefully free, is quite comfortable in this part.  Knowles, on the other hand, is less so.  Queenie Vassar is fun as Jane’s forever hill-folky grandmother, Cactus Kate.  The movie trucks along thanks to La Cava’s visual energy, often compensating for the film’s assorted shortcomings.  It’s a fine-to-middling screwball comedy, even as it never quite strikes gold.