Even diehard Irene Dunne fans may not have heard of Lady in a Jam, which isn't surprising. This very uneven screwball comedy about a broke heiress and the psychoanalyst who tries to curb her spendthrift ways starts strong, but collapses during its second act. Dunne, as always, is delightful but struggles to rise above the subpar material. A lovely video transfer, solid audio, and a good commentary track distinguish Kino's Blu-ray presentation of an intriguing curio that Dunne devotees will enjoy, despite its deficiencies. For Fans Only.
Always classy and ever versatile, Irene Dunne could do it all. She crisscrossed genres with ease over the course of her three-decade career, starring in romantic dramas, screwball comedies, splashy musicals, epic westerns, and period pieces. Many of her films are immortal (The Awful Truth, Show Boat, Love Affair), and even the ones that misfire remain interesting and noteworthy due to her participation. Lady in a Jam is one of those minor movies that never quite gels, but Dunne does her damnedest to make director Gregory La Cava's daffy farce as delightful as possible.
When the executor of her grandfather's massive estate informs airheaded heiress Jane Palmer (Dunne) that her spendthrift ways have all but bankrupted her, the shock sends the shopaholic for a loop. It also sends the executor (Eugene Pallette) to seek help from Dr. Enright (Patric Knowles), a dreamy psychiatrist who masquerades as Jane's chauffeur in an attempt to get close to her and find out what fuels her extravagant impulses.
Dr. Enright finally unmasks and persuades Jane to return to her humble Arizona roots to get to the root of her problems, and while staying at her grandmother's ramshackle ranch, which rumor has it hides a stash of gold ore, she encounters her aw-shucks childhood sweetheart Stanley Gardner (Ralph Bellamy), a singing cowboy who hopes to rekindle Jane's affection. At the same time, Jane discovers Dr. Enright harbors his own psychological issues stemming from a painful breakup, and as she becomes increasingly more attracted to him, Jane tries to heal his wounds and win his love.
Despite its inane premise, Lady in a Jam starts well, but once it forsakes Manhattan for Arizona the wheels come off. The script by a trio of little-known writers tries its best to lampoon psychiatry but badly misses the bullseye, and the disjointed story threads never get stitched together in a satisfying manner. Extensive location shooting adds authenticity, but director Gregory La Cava, who helmed My Man Godfrey, one of the all-time great screwball comedies, can't come close to making lightning strike twice.
Part of the problem is Patric Knowles, an attractive, sophisticated, and very serviceable actor who just can't muster the magnetism necessary to star opposite Dunne, who was used to teaming with - and clicking with - giants like Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, and Melvyn Douglas. Few sparks fly between them, and though it's great to see Dunne reunite with Bellamy, who portrayed a similar - albeit more refined - cowpoke who sought her favor in The Awful Truth, his character here is just too dumb and goofy to be believed.
Lady in a Jam could also use a lot more Eugene Pallette. The rotund, raspy-voiced character actor enlivens every scene in which he appears, but once the action shifts to Arizona, he's out of the picture until its final minutes. Queenie Vassar picks up the slack as Jane's hick, sourpuss grandmother, but it's tough to fill Pallette's sizable shoes.
Through it all, Dunne maintains her dignity, and her vivacious personality, timeless elegance, and comic prowess propel Lady in a Jam, even when she and it get stuck in the mud. Dunne is one of those rare actresses who can rise above subpar material and make it not only watchable but enjoyable, and Lady in a Jam is one of those films that test that talent. Like many screwball comedies, it's a whirlwind and a jumble, but unlike the best entries in the genre, it doesn't hang together.
Despite its considerable faults, Lady in a Jam is a treat for Dunne fans. Many of the star's lesser films are seldom revived, so those of us who revere this five-time Best Actress Oscar nominee don't get much of a chance to see and savor her work. This release fills a notable gap and we can only hope more of Dunne's films - both rare and revered - are on the Blu-ray horizon.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Lady in a Jam arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The packaging lists the movie's run time as 78 minutes, but the feature actually runs 83 minutes. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
An absolutely lovely 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer lends Lady in a Jam some much-needed luster and showcases the exceptional cinematography of two-time Oscar-winner Hal Mohr. Excellent clarity and contrast, deep blacks, crisp whites, and beautifully graded grays all combine to produce a vibrant, film-like image that brims with detail and depth. Faint grain provides essential texture (especially during the location sequences in Arizona), superior shadow delineation enhances both daytime and nocturnal scenes, costume patterns are stable, and sharp close-ups flatter the stars. Some print damage is evident. Errant marks, a couple of blotches, and a few scratches dot the source, but they never distract from the on-screen action or detract from the splendor of Mohr's photography. Lady in a Jam may not be Dunne's finest hour, but it looks terrific.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track provides clear, well-balanced sound that's free of any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Frank Skinner's music score without any distortion and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like gunshots, screams, crying babies, and mooing cows are distinct, while subtle atmospherics like Manhattan street noise and Arizona breezes nicely shade the action. Without much fuss, this solid track gets the job done.
In addition to a bunch of trailers for other KLSC releases, the only extra is an audio commentary by filmmaker/film historian Daniel Kremer and filmmaker Allan Arkush. This is the duo's 10th commentary and the two enjoy a comfortable rapport that keeps the track rolling along. They talk about Gregory La Cava's directorial style, unique working methods, penchant for improvisation, debilitating alcoholism, the brilliance of cinematographer Hal Mohr, and Dunne's versatility and lengthy career. They also give Bellamy and Knowles their due and touch upon the film's costumes, writing, and editing. This is far from an essential track, but classics fans will enjoy the banter.
Lady in a Jam is a forgettable bit of fluff, but Irene Dunne makes the middling material seem better than it is. Dunne's vivacity, authenticity, and impeccable timing bolster director Gregory La Cava's schizophrenic screwball comedy that alternately sparkles and sputters. A high-quality video transfer and solid audio enhance the appeal of this little-known film that Dunne completists will welcome with open arms. For Fans Only.