Review: Mitchell Leisen’s “The Lady is Willing,” Starring Marlene Dietrich and Fred MacMurray

Fred MacMurray and Marlene Dietrich in
Fred MacMurray and Marlene Dietrich in "The Lady is Willing"

Coming off two Oscar-nominated films, Hold Back the Dawn and I Wanted Wings, director Mitchell Leisen took a break from his home studio Paramount to direct one picture at Columbia. The Lady is Willing was the first producing credit of agent Charles K. Feldman, who became known for orchestrating package deals that would unite various talents for a commitment of just one film at a studio, rather than the standard multi-year contract.

Along with Leisen, Feldman brought star Fred MacMurray from Paramount to Columbia to star in an opposites-attract romantic comedy with his client Marlene Dietrich. Leisen could direct these kinds of MacMurray comedies in his sleep—see Remember the Night or Hands Across the Table—and the new pairing with Dietrich had the potential to be an inspired way to change up the formula. “I had known her slightly at Paramount when she was working with [Josef] von Sternberg, but only to say ‘hi’ when we passed on the lot,” Leisen said. Working with her, he was very impressed: “She knew everything about lighting that there was to know. She knew right where to turn so the key light would pick her up, just how the shadows should fall . . . She was the most fascinating woman who ever lived.”1 Unfortunately, The Lady is Willing is anything but inspired—it’s a pale imitation of those earlier comedies, with two leads that sell the mutual disinterest of the first act, but not the romance of the second and third.

Marlene Dietrich, alongside Fred MacMurray, showcases a hat designed for "The Lady is Willing" by John Frederics (with a gown by Irene)
Marlene Dietrich, alongside Fred MacMurray, showcases an especially bizarre hat designed for “The Lady is Willing” by John Frederics (with a gown by Irene)

Dietrich plays stage actress Elizabeth Madden, who discovers her desire to be a mother when she finds an abandoned baby, but as a single woman without much money in the bank she can’t adopt the child. Enter the baby’s doctor, Corey T. McBain—he’s divorced, so Madden proposes to him. He accepts because, well, he’s played by MacMurray, and that’s how these things go. Of course, their strictly-business marriage soon evolves into something more, which is then threatened by a simple misunderstanding. Writers James Edward Grant and Albert McCleery play mad libs with the previous Leisen/MacMurray comedies, sometimes to positively strange results. There are occasional laughs to be had—MacMurray has a brief musical moment that jolts the movie awake—but for the most part, The Lady is Willing feels perfunctory at best. “That script wasn’t the greatest in the world,” Leisen admitted.2

The reception was very mixed; Bosley Crowther called it “a very stagy exhibition in rather revolting taste and only one of several similar cheap incidents in which a tot is used to bolster a dull tale.”3 Variety was more positive, writing that it “is a racy and sophisticated marital romedy that carries a good share of amusement for adult audiences,”4 while Modern Screen said, “there is hardly an unpedestrian moment in the script from first to last.”5 Feldman’s first shot at producing may not have been the success he hoped for, but he would produce Dietrich’s next three pictures, and find more success in the late forties and early fifties.

Additional research by Natalie Busch.

Where to Watch

Buy it on VHS

For More on The Lady is Willing

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

References   [ + ]

1. David Chierichetti, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director (Los Angeles: Photoventures Company, 1995), 159-160.
2. Chierichetti 1995, 160.
3. Bosley Crowther, “‘The Lady Is Willing,’ Starring Marlene Dietrich and Fred MacMurray in Rich Farce, Is Attraction at the Capitol,” The New York Times, April 24, 1942.
4. Walt., “The Lady is Willing (One Song),” Variety, January 23, 1942.
5. “The Lady is Willing,” Modern Screen, January 1942