Blonde romantic-comediennes are a staple in Hollywood films. Names like Reese Witherspoon, Meg Ryan, Goldie Hawn, Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow immediately come to mind. And every single one of them is a talent with many popular rom-coms under their belts. However, perhaps none is so affiliated with this genre as Doris Day. She had what might be the best comedic run of any actress in film history beginning with her first romantic comedy It Happened to Jane in 1959 running through her last onscreen appearance in With Six You Get Eggroll in 1968.
I grew up watching the Rock Hudson and Doris Day trio of rom-coms. I absolutely adored them and still never get tired of watching them. Then I discovered her one outing with Cary Grant (who is a personal favorite) in That Touch of Mink. Next I fell in love with The Glass Bottom Boat, with co-star Rod Taylor, which I reviewed for last year’s Doris Day Blogathon.
One by one I ticked Day’s rom-coms off my list. But it wasn’t until more recently that I ran across one of her films that I had never even heard of, It Happened to Jane. I still question how it is possible that this movie is not better known, especially since it also co-stars a young Jack Lemmon. This picture is absolutely charming and ranks right up there with my favorite Doris Day films.
In It Happened to Jane, Day is Jane Osgood, a young widow with two children, She runs a fledgling business farming and shipping lobsters to restaurants. Her first major order is ruined due to ineptitude on the part of the E&P Railroad. With the help of her close friend and attorney George Denham (Lemmon), she sues the railroad for damages, unknowingly locking herself into a David and Goliath style battle with Harry Foster Malone (Ernie Kovaks), the miserly head of the E&P. Going up against a corporate giant, Jane and George run into challenge after challenge. While helping Jane, George has his own private challenge, namely getting his childhood friend to see him as more than a friend.
There are several things I really love about this film. The first being the performances of the main leads. Day plays her usual rom-com persona albeit in a rural setting instead of New York City. Jane is sweet and beloved by her small Maine community. But there is a backbone of steel beneath that All-American girl exterior. Her fearlessness and determination against impossible odds is inspiring, if not ill-advised. Her interactions with the children are so natural and believable. And as much as I love her fashionable wardrobes in other films, they can be a bit distracting. That is not the case at all here, which allowed me to focus more on her character.
This is one of the films that really turned me on to Jack Lemmon. Since watching it the first time, I’ve seen many more of his films and believe him to supremely talented. At first glance, he almost seems mismatched with Day’s character Jane, who appears more mature than her childhood friend George. George is what they describe in historical fiction as a milquetoast. He allows Jane to boss him around and is basically a doormat. However, his transformation into a likeable alpha male, when the town turns on Jane, is nothing short of glorious. And the speech he gives at the town hall meeting about democracy and civic responsibility almost makes me cry every time I hear it. It makes me want to stand up and salute the flag or something.
Of course, in a smaller role as a villain we all love to hate, Ernie Kovacs chews the scenery like wood going through a chipper. As Harry Foster Malone he is deliciously detestable as he uses all the resources in his power to deny Jane’s legitimate claim against his railroad. Malone is a consummate bully with the bottom line as his guiding light. Without risking spoilers, some of his actions at the end serve to give him some humanity and keep him from becoming a caricature. I’ve only seen Kovacs in one other film Operation Mad Ball, which ironically also co-stars Jack Lemmon and which I loved enough to review. Based on these two experiences, I think Kovacs makes a great antagonist.
Though I didn’t grow up in the Northeast, I did grow up in small town America, so I related to the vintage Americana feel of this film. This is a place where kids run free outdoors, where neighbors are like family who will help you out in a jam or challenge you in an instant. The pace of life is more leisurely, participation in the community is expected and patriotism is ingrained. In fact, patriotism is not the focus of the story line and yet it is planted in the film like a foundation. Honestly, I kind of love that about It Happened to Jane. It’s rather refreshing and when paired with the gorgeous cinematography of a New England summer I can’t help but feel nostalgic about my own happy childhood days.
It Happened to Jane has quickly earned it’s place among my favorite of Doris Day’s comedies. Even though it wasn’t commercially successful upon it’s release, it gives a clear pictures of Day’s previously underutilized comedic skills. Not to mention it displays Lemmon’s talent at character transformation. And I would argue that it helped pave the way for Day’s marvelous years long romantic comedy run in the 1960’s. I’m only sad that Day and Lemmon were never paired together again.
This is my contribution to the Third Annual Doris Day Blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. I encourage you to stop by Michaela’s site and read the other entries for this year and previous years.
All film screenshots are my own.