Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #27: "The Lady Says No" (1951)

None of these ladies will say no to David Niven.

The flick: The Lady Says No (Ross-Stillman Productions, 1951; distributed by United Artists, 1952) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.3

Director: Frank Ross (husband of star Joan Caulfield; this was his only directing credit, but he produced The Robe, Of Mice and Men, and The Devil and Miss Jones)

Actors of note:
  • David Niven (Oscar winner for Separate Tables; The Guns of Navarone, Murder by Death, three Pink Panther movies, a great deal more)
  • Frances Bavier (The Day the Earth Stood Still; Aunt Bea from TV's The Andy Griffith Show)
  • Henry Jones (Vertigo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, way more)
  • James Robertson Justice (The Guns of Navarone, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
  • Lenore Lonergran (Westward the Women)
  • Peggy Maley (The Wild One, Anchors Aweigh)

The gist of it: Life magazine photographer and man's man Bill Shelby (Niven) travels to Carmel, CA to photograph Dorinda Hatch (Caulfield), author of the best-selling book, The Lady Says No, which is evidently some kind of proto-feminist broadside. Bill is surprised to find that Dorinda is a sexy young woman and not a dried-up spinster, and he's sure that the comely lass was just parroting ideas she got from her stuffy old Aunt Alice (Bavier), whose scruffy, vagabond husband Matthew (Justice) has just returned home from one of his customary lengthy absences.

Bill and Dorinda go into full-on "battle of the sexes" mode, alternately fighting and flirting, and eventually they get another couple, newlyweds Potsie and Goldie (Jones and Lonergran), involved in their shenanigans. It gets to a point where Potsie and Bill have barricaded themselves in a trailer, and it's up to Dorinda and Goldie and the police and the United States Army to get these feuding couples back together. Along the way, there's a lot of shouting from everyone on the subject of gender roles until Dorinda wises up and tosses her book in the ocean. Gloria Steinem, eat your heart out!

My take: It's tricky to review a "battle of the sexes" comedy from 1951, because men and women were playing by a whole different rule book then. It's tough for me to say what's decent and what's indecent and what's reasonable and what's unreasonable for these people because I don't live in their world. We can't expect the art and culture of the past to conform to our modern-day values.

Joan Caulfield
That being said, the sexual politics of The Lady Says No are fairly repugnant by the standards of any age. At least, I think they are. The characters in this movie are so unrealistic and inconsistent, especially Dorinda, whose personality changes several times per scene, that it's difficult to know what they believe about anything. And if I were casting the role of a testosterone-fueled, macho adventurer -- a traveling photographer who documented his exploits in a book called I Shot Borneo -- I'm not sure that dapper, gentlemanly David Niven would be my first choice.

Most of the plot of this movie revolves around the contents of Dorinda's book and the effect the book has on its readers. Frustratingly, we never get a solid idea of what's in that book, apart from the fact that the author doesn't approve of men whistling at women on the street. Today we refer to that kind of behavior as "catcalling."

And besides, the movie is not really interested in letting its characters truly hash out their issues regarding male-female relationships. The Lady Says No is too busy with pie fights, slapstick barroom brawls, and wacky car chases to really concentrate on the matter at hand.

Still in all, it was difficult not to cringe at a scene in which Dorinda visits Bill's trailer and negotiates with him for the return of an embarrassing photo (don't get excited; it's nothing sexual), and Bill uses this opportunity to get Dorinda to kiss him. In another scene, Bill pays for Dorinda's drink and then says he has a "mortgage" on her. By the end, Bill is blatantly telling Dorinda what to think, and she's grateful for it! I rolled my eyes, but I think if I'd been a woman, I might have been violently ill.

Apart from that, The Lady Says No is a swing and a miss, I'm sorry to report.

David Niven's charming as always (oh, for the days when a pencil mustache signaled sophistication!), and Joan Caulfield brings a lot of energy and wit to her character. Cinematographer James Wong Howe films her in a very flattering way, too, which helps the film somewhat. But I couldn't help feeling that Niven was too just old for her. Actually, they're only separated by 12 years, but he looks older than his age and she younger than hers. Or maybe their personalities just don't fit. In Murder by Death, Niven is paired up with Maggie Smith, who's 24 years younger than he is, and they're somehow a perfect fit.

Is it funny: The blogger says no. Maybe one joke in twenty reaches its intended destination. A few of the film's would-be comic setpieces just flop, such as an interminable sequence at a dive bar called the Wharf Rat, where Dorinda flirts with various men, including Potsie, to make Bill jealous. Or maybe that's not what's happening. Her motives and methods change so often, it's tough to be sure.

I sort of liked an early scene in which Dorinda elaborately humiliates Bill in front of an all-female audience at some kind of social meeting, but the scene went on so long I forgot what she was trying to prove and why he was passively allowing her to cut his necktie (symbolism, I wonder?) and draw on his face with lipstick.

The one scene I really enjoyed was a totally bonkers dream sequence set in a fantasy version of Borneo where Bill has a harem and Dorinda is followed around by a little man in a hideous monkey costume. What this scene has to do with anything is beyond me, but it at least got my attention.

My grade: C

P.S. - As for the matter of racial stereotyping, I'll have to plead nolo contendere. The movie has exactly one African-American character, a woman who is seen frantically jitterbugging at the Wharf Rat to the strains of an all-white jazz combo. She seemed to be wearing a waitress' uniform, but she was standing outside the door of the ladies' room. Who this woman was or what she was supposed to be doing was beyond my ken. The movie holds on her for a moment, though, so she must have some significance.