Review: Gregory La Cava’s “Lady in a Jam,” Starring Irene Dunne

Ralph Bellamy, Irene Dunne, and Patric Knowles in
Ralph Bellamy, Irene Dunne, and Patric Knowles in "Lady in a Jam"

After the success of Unfinished Business in 1941, director Gregory La Cava and star Irene Dunne returned for another comedy at Universal, Lady in a Jam. Unfortunately, it lacks the magic of La Cava’s screwball classics such as My Man Godfrey or Stage Door—this film is a stale rehash with fewer laughs and more overbearingly sexist attitudes.

Dunne plays Jane Palmer, a selfish heiress who has spent years blowing away her fortune. Her guardian (Eugene Pallette) informs her that she is finally broke, and enlists respected psychiatrist Dr. Enright (a bland Patric Knowles) to try and help with her supposed insanity. Palmer travels with the doctor to her grandmother’s ranch in Arizona, where she searches for gold to reignite her fortune, but instead finds herself in a love triangle between him and her childhood sweetheart, Stanley (a barely present Ralph Bellamy).

It’s tired, sexist stuff: a woman with power or money needs a man to show her what really matters in life. Jane is written as wildly inconsistent; at one moment the thought of staying in a motel horrifies her, and at the next she is more than willing to get muddy prospecting for gold. Dunne is the only real asset the film has, but even she can’t make the arc of her character anything less than completely incoherent.

Patric Knowles and Irene Dunne in "Lady in a Jam"
Patric Knowles and Irene Dunne in “Lady in a Jam”

Some of this can be attributed to the state of the production. La Cava supposedly decided to shoot the film without a finished script, planning to improvise: “We shot a few bits from a script that was awful, then Greg disappeared for weeks with a writer and Greg’s psychiatrist,” Bellamy later said. “Irene lost her serenity and trashed her trailer.”1

“We shot in Phoenix and it was very hot,” Dunne would explain. “There was no air-conditioning then. And I sweltered in my portable dressing room for ten weeks as Greg waited for inspiration and it never came and finally I just threw things around and it turned out to be a real disaster and Greg only made one more movie after that and it was five years later.”2 That film, Living in a Big Way, was a huge bomb for MGM that officially ended La Cava’s career.

“Greg was most off-the-cuff creative when he was drinking,” Stage Door producer Pandro S. Berman would later remark. “And his career only stalled when his doctors told him to go on the wagon in the 1940s.”3 This may explain why the film has a certain deadness, but there’s still that ugly contempt for the main character. “If there wasn’t no women in the world, there wouldn’t be no trouble,” one character remarks. That may as well be the thesis of Lady in a Jam, where a woman runs around selfishly ruining the lives of everyone around her as well as her own, until men step in to set her straight. Dunne is delightful, but not sufficiently so to wash away the unpleasantness of the rest of the film.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on Lady in a Jam

Read the review in The New York Times

References   [ + ]

1. James Bawden and Ron Miller, Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), 34
2. James Bawden and Ron Miller, Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), 173
3. Wes D. Gehring, Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood (Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2003), 131