It’s a clash of east coast vs. wild west when Jean Arthur and John Wayne meet in this romantic comedy that features a bit of a western flavor. The two leads have great screen chemistry, which more often than not makes up for writing and direction that are content to lean on their appeal. Though the story has few surprises to offer, the two stars make this worth watching.
The Production: 3.5/5
Originally released in 1943, A Lady Takes A Chance serves as an answer to an unasked question, “What might happen if Frank Capra decided to make one of his screwball romances into a western?” With a mismatched pair fated to fall in love on a road trip that comes with some unexpected detours, it’s hard not to be reminded of It Happened One Night when watching this film. But if the director William A. Seiter and the writer Robert Ardrey fall short of imitating the best of Capra, they do succeed where it counts most: in allowing the audience to enjoy the spectacular presence of two of Hollywood’s greatest stars, Jean Arthur and John Wayne.
Arthur stars as Molly J. Truesdale, a New York bank clerk who’s been saving up for the trip of her dreams: a two week cross-country bus tour that promises to show her all the sights from New York to California and back again. Though she has many interested suitors (including Grady Sutton, playing a nebbish similar to his parts in several W.C. Fields films), Molly isn’t seriously interested in any of them. These men only see her as a prize to be won, or a person to be coddled, and not as the independent woman that she is. After fending off not only their advances but that of the lecherous tour guide (Phil Silvers), Molly’s cross-country journey is underway. Meanwhile, out in Oregon, Duke Hudkins (Wayne) is a rodeo cowboy with a beloved horse and a business partner named Waco (Charles Winninger). Like Molly, Duke has a bunch of would-be dates clamoring for his attention, but he’s similarly disinterested in his local options. When Molly’s bus winds up at Duke’s rodeo, the two meet when Duke is thrown from his horse straight into her lap. After having a great time spending her layover with Duke, Molly loses track of time and misses her bus connection and is told she must wait several days for the next one. Though she stubbornly refuses Duke’s initial offers to show her the west as he sees it, the two find themselves drawn to each other. But while their initial chemistry was enough to propel their first meeting, as they get to know each other, they discover that they have very different life experiences. Whereas Molly is interested in the idea of culture and variety, the ideas of roughing it and rolling with the punches are not second nature to her. And while Duke is rugged and crafty, he has some stubborn hangups about trying new things that leave him ill-equipped to handle the new woman in his life.
The best thing about the film is the two leads and the chemistry they share onscreen. The script doesn’t give much characterization to Molly and Duke, but the mere presence of Arthur and Wayne in those roles is enough to fill in the blanks. Arthur is a little more buttoned up here than she is in her roles for Capra; her performance here is a blend of the charisma she brought to those roles along with a touch of the aloofness from Claudette Colbert’s performance in It Happened One Night. Wayne adds a touch of Clark Gable’s charm from that film to his persona here, without some of the Gable character’s rougher edges. What makes this film distinct from It Happened One Night is that neither Arthur or Wayne’s characters actually need anything from the other; both characters have spent so long growing accustomed to having things their own way that the idea of partnering with someone, especially someone so different, is foreign to them. The film’s greatest pleasures come from realizing that these two characters are actually well matched, and waiting for them to discover it as well.
While the star power in the film is undeniable, the script and direction at times are content to let that power do all of the heavy lifting. There is an unevenness to the picture, particularly in the second half. While the first half of the film moves along at a lively pace, introducing the main characters and putting them in entertaining predicaments, the second half loses some of that momentum. Ardrey’s script simply does not give the performers as much to do in the second half as it does in the first, and Seiter’s direction sometimes languishes as the story material starts to run out before the running time has. Though the film is very enjoyable for what it is, it’s the weaker second half that costs the film its chance at greatness. What’s left is a movie that flirts with genius but is content to rest on its laurels and settle for being merely very good. On the one hand, it’s easy to be charmed by what does happen in the film, but on the other, it’s hard not to wish that the stars had been given a little more to work with.
Overall, though, the charm of the two leads and the rare opportunity to see John Wayne as a comedic lead, make it hard to be too critical about the film’s shortcomings. While it’s easy to see how it could have been better, it’s hard to complain too much about what it is when it’s this much fun to watch. And with a running time of only 86 minutes, the film is smart enough not to overstay its welcome. It’s also worth noting that the film was released in 1943, during a time of war abroad and rationing at home. A whimsical series of title card at the beginning sets the story in 1938, and asks the audience to remember the way things were, and hopes for a return to a less complicated “once upon a time.” Seen in this light, the film’s occasional shortcomings can perhaps be interpreted as an attempt to present a story free of reminders of present-day turmoil, and as a bit of escapist entertainment, the film more than succeeds.
3D Rating: NA
A Lady Takes A Chance is presented in its original ratio on this disc from Kino Lorber, by way of a new 4K scan created by the Paramount Pictures Archives. According to the package’s liner notes, this scan was taken from a combination of elements including the original negative as well as nitrate fine grains. Perhaps as a result of being sourced from multiple elements, the presentation here is inconsistent. At its best, the film can appear incredibly sharp, with excellent detail, great contrast, and a nearly pristine image showing almost no evidence of age or wear. At its worst, sections can appear indistinct, lacking sharpness and clarity, and showing some speckling and other age-related wear and tear. But for the majority of the presentation, the visual quality is at a happy medium between these two opposite ends of the spectrum, appearing reasonably detailed and mostly clean. At its worst, the presentation is still more than enough to allow the story and performances to shine through, and at its best is quite beautiful to look at.
(I found it difficult to assign a numerical grade to the video quality for this title. There are portions which are easily a 4.5, and portions which are much closer to a 3, but the bulk of the film is in the range of a 3.75, which I have rounded up to 4. Given that the film has long been available only in poor quality copies, this disc is a welcome upgrade over previous home video editions. If you’re a fan of the film and/or the cast, don’t be dissuaded by the less than perfect numerical score; this disc offers a quality presentation of this film.)
A Lady Takes A Chance is presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono audio, which my receiver decoded into the center channel. The audio on the disc is clear and clean, with almost no traces of hiss or other age-related artifacts. Dialogue is well recorded and easy to discern, and the overall track sounds pleasingly full. Though the video quality can be inconsistent at times, the audio is happily of a consistent high quality.
Optional English subtitles are also included.
Special Features: 0/5
The disc includes trailers of varying technical quality for six unrelated films but contains no bonus material related to the film itself:
- Legend Of The Lost
- Man Of The West
- Duel In The Sun
- Support Your Local Sheriff
- The Cariboo Trail
A Lady Takes A Chance is an entertaining, if minor, entry in the filmographies for its stars Jean Arthur and John Wayne. Though Arthur was nearing the end of her screen career, and Wayne was just beginning to ascend in his own, the two are well-matched here. Their screen chemistry is able to overcome some unevenness in the scripting and direction, making the film more fun than it might have been with lesser actors in the lead. Though the film does not offer any bonus features related to the film, the presentation here is easily the best the film has ever looked on home video. A minor classic worthy of rediscovery, A Lady Takes A Chance is well worth a look for fans of old Hollywood.