The appeal of movie star chemistry is winningly apparent in RKO's “A Lady Takes a Chance” (1943), which teams Jean Arthur and John Wayne in a romantic comedy. The two stars shouldn’t mesh together as well as they do here, but they do. While it won’t make anyone forget Arthur’s other 1943 film, the classic “The More the Merrier”, it’s still a most pleasant 86 minutes. Thanks to its situations and relaxed charm, it reminds me a lot of “It Happened One Night” (1934), and that’s not a bad thing at all.
“The More the Merrier” gave us a look at the housing shortage in wartime Washington D.C. “A Lady Takes a Chance” sidesteps the war issue entirely by setting the story in 1938. That way, contemporary audiences wouldn’t wonder why all these strapping cowboys on display aren’t in uniform.
We are first introduced to Molly Truesdale (Jean Arthur) as she boards a bus. Saying goodbye to her are three suitors played by Grady Sutton (any movie is better with Grady Sutton in it), Grant Withers and, I believe, Hans Conreid. They each ply Molly with going away presents to the bemusement of her fellow passengers, especially one wide-eyed seatmate Flossie Bendix (Mary Field).
The genuinely curious Flossie asks Molly why she’s going away. One gets the impression Flossie doesn’t go on a lot of dates.
It turns out Molly is taking a vacation out west, and, I suspect, to get away from her admirers.
Boarding the bus is the driver, Phil Silvers. He may the most obnoxious bus drivers in movie history and its little wonder why Molly stays behind one night and misses the bus. (I suspect Molly subconsciously stayed behind so she wouldn’t have to put up with Phil for a 14-day bus ride).
Earlier in the evening, while attending a rodeo, a cowboy is thrown off his bucking bronco and lands on Molly. It’s love at first sight for Molly who gazes longingly at the man on top of her, Duke Hudkins (John Wayne, as if you couldn’t guess).
Molly stares longingly at Duke. After the quality of her three suitors, one can’t blame her. Duke likes the ladies though and thinks she’s just another easy mark. He’s quite unprepared for the depth of feelings she has for him and her hurt is palpable when she thinks they’re going to have an evening alone together but they’re interrupted by a steady stream of old girlfriends who he invites to sit at their table.
Has anyone ever done wistfulness better than Jean Arthur? The way her voice cracks with disappointment would melt butter, but Duke doesn’t seem to notice her infatuation with him at first. To him, he’s a man, she’s a woman, they have some time on their hands, so why shouldn’t he allow her to use his hotel room but not before telling the hotel waiter to send up a bottle and two glasses.
No getting drunk for Molly and she leaves in a huff. Duke is bewildered, even more so when she refuses his offer of a ride to the next town where she can catch up with her bus. There are several amusing scenes where Molly hitchhikes her way to the town, even showing off her legs a la Claudette Colbert. But her rides only take her part of the way and Duke and his pal Waco (Charles Winninger, and it’s a pleasure to see him in a role where he’s not bemoaning the decline of vaudeville) see her standing at different points along the route.
Eventually she hops in and after some drama involving Duke’s prize horse coming down with pneumonia because Molly took the blanket off of him for herself to stay warm during a campout, you know they’re going to wind up together.
It’s fun to see Wayne in a role like this. One doesn’t think of him as a romantic leading man, but watch him and see how he’s rarely condescending to his female co-stars. He usually treats them as equals and there’s usually a great deal of warmth there tinged with a bit of vulnerability. Here you can see his Duke character warming towards Molly as the film progresses.
I don’t know how Arthur and Wayne got on together during the making of this, but they play exceptionally well together. It’s a pity they didn’t do more films together.
Director of “A Lady Takes a Chance” is William A. Seiter, a great favorite of mine. He has an invisible kind of style that suits material like this. So many of his films are never forced or contrived. Among his other credits are another title with Jean Arthur, the delightful “If You Could Only Cook” (1935); the Astaire-Rogers musical “Roberta” (1935); one of Deanna Durbin’s very best movies “Nice Girl?” (1941); the sublime “You Were Never Lovelier” (1942) with Rita Hayworth and some dancer guy; and my favorite Laurel and Hardy feature “Sons of the Desert” (1933).
The latter is one of the most perfectly constructed comedies ever made, running like clockwork and never missing a beat. A lot of Seiter’s movies are like that, and while I don’t know that much about his off-camera life, I do know that if his name is in the credits, the movie is worth watching. Like “A Lady Takes a Chance.”