This film is an open-and-shut case of small-town American versus small-town American't. Judge George Hatch tells you why.
Can rural lobster entrepreneur Jane Osgood survive railroad mogul Harry Foster "Pharaoh" and his Seven Plagues?
Alternative titles under consideration for It Happened to Jane were Plain Jane, Jane from Maine, and the truly awful Twinkle and Shine. None of them, including the final release title, captured the essence of the film.
Nothing really "happened to Jane." Jane is the one who made everything happen.
Facts of the Case
Jane Osgood (Doris Day, Love Me or Leave Me) is a young widow hoping to start a lobster farming enterprise to support herself and her two young sons. Her efforts get off to a bad start when her first client rejects the shipment because the lobsters arrived dead. Word quickly spreads and other customers promptly cancel their orders. Once she learns that the E&P Railroad is responsible for a three-day delay, she contacts George Denham (Jack Lemmon, Glengarry Glen Ross), a promising young lawyer whom she's known since childhood, and her de facto boyfriend.
George discovers that the penny-pinching conglomerate head, Harry Foster Malone (Ernie Kovacs, Our Man in Havana), fired his weekend staff at the railroad to cut costs, so there was no one to receive Jane's shipment. Together, Jane and George set out to reconcile the situation. Malone "concedes" by offering a mere $700 dollars (the cost of the lobsters) as settlement. But Jane takes into consideration the profit margin, the loss of clientele, and the damage to her reputation. Against George's advice, she refuses to accept this paltry sum as recompense.
The sparks that soon fly are not those of an old steam engine screeching to a halt.
It Happened to Jane is a justly identified as a Capraesque comedy because it reprises the plight of the little man taking on corporate America and the government; and, after much sound, fury, and frustration, finally winning—much to the pleasure and satisfaction of an optimistic audience rooting for the underdog.
Although the town of Cape Anne, Maine, is just a whistle stop on mogul Malone's railroad, Jane's plight catches media attention and she becomes the national poster girl for Everyman's fight for what is right based on principle, not on money or political clout.
Jane even inspires the demurring George to take a stand with her, and also against the tyrannical local First Selectman, who's been keeping the town under his thumb for years. Once the handsome Larry Hall (Steve Forrest, The Longest Day), a top writer for the The New York Mirror, enters the picture to promote Jane's story, George's insecurities are rekindled. Larry accompanies Jane to appearances on live TV shows like I've Got a Secret ("My secret is: I'm fighting the meanest man in the world."), and woos her on a whirlwind tour of The Big Apple.
While the film tries to suggest a romantic triangle is in the making, you know how it's going to turn out. Larry pops the Big Question after knowing Jane for only four days. Meanwhile, George had proposed to Jane when they were just kids. A children's party clown acted as the minister, and he even gave her a ring—after the car keys were taken off. Oh, how sweet!
The central conflict, however, remains between Jane and Malone, and I was genuinely surprised by many of the plot twists that ensued. When Malone realizes he has now become "the "most hated man in America," he finesses his way out of the situation by publicly donating the train—a steam engine named "Old 97"—to Jane for future shipments; sure enough, new orders for her live lobsters start to pour in. But, surreptitiously, Malone immediately informs Jane that she must pay rent for the tracks "Old 97" now rests upon and will soon be used to transport her cargo.
The townsfolk rally behind Jane, finding and stealing (Note: This is a Capra "no-no" for the good guys) coal wherever they can in order to get the train moving and up to speed. Realizing what's going on, Malone shrewdly re-routes "Old 97" on an impossibly long trip with stops at the smallest hamlets. "Die, lobsters! Die!"
What follows is a series of mate-checkmate maneuvers between Jane and Malone as more and more employees, including Malone's own board members and locals, turn against him and side with Jane. A small-town stationmaster advises, "I just got a call from Malone and he told me if I give you any water, I'll be fired. Well, pull 'Old 97' up a bit to the water tower so I can lower the chute!"
Although you know It Happened to Jane is going to end on an upbeat note, there is still a lot of suspense during the last half-hour, thanks to a smart screenplay by Max Wilk and Norman Katkov, who later became a staff writer for The Doris Day Show. There's also a pre-1960s feminist touch as the aggressive Jane Osgood is instrumental in changing attitudes toward women, not only those of the overbearing Malone and the wimpy, over-protective George, but the entire country. And she didn't even have burn her bra to gain the attention.
There's some political partisanship thrown in to boot when "for-the-people" Democrat George tries to unseat the manipulative reigning Republican First Selectman at a town hall meeting. George's passionate speech is lengthy; and while some found it uncalled for and interfered with the Jane/Malone conflict, I thought it nicely complemented the nationally acknowledged polarity of their struggle by confining it to a grassroots level. The same basic American values are present in both.
Doris Day and Jack Lemmon are excellent in the lead roles and perfectly contrast each other's characters. Day plays Jane as a no-nonsense woman who believes "what's right is right" and is willing to stand her ground on principle at any cost. Lemmon's George is insecure and tentative about changing the way things are. ("The difference between what's right and what's practical is a continuing shame to the human race. But what can we do?") In several scenes, George's naiveté and boyishness are underscored when he's dressed in his Cub Scout leader's uniform, short pants and all. Ernie Kovacs, topped with a bald skullcap sided with wisps of gray hair, plays the malevolent Malone with brio. You hate him instantly in his first scene, as he shovels food into his mouth while barking orders to his staff.
Steve Forrest as Larry, Jane's New York suitor, is handsome but rather bland and doesn't really generate enough charisma to make an audience believe he's any threat to George. Except for film and TV veteran Mary Wickes (Now, Voyager), who plays Matilda, the town's switchboard operator and wannabe reporter, the rest of the cast is relatively unknown, but they add a genuine rustic flavor to the overall look and feel of the film.
The all-too-brief New York sequence features mere glimpses of 1950s TV game show hosts and panelists, like Garry Moore, Gene Rayburn, Jayne Meadows, and Betsy Palmer (Friday The 13th). Director Richard Quine (Strangers When We Meet) smoothly integrates the national attention Jane has drawn with the small-town political dilemma.
I don't remember how the film was marketed, but it was one of Day's few box-office flops, and never even made it to VHS. Sony has rectified this situation for Doris Day fans with a first-time home video release on DVD. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is near perfect. While the rural outdoors look stunning, a few indoor sequences suffer from improper contrast. In particular, one scene features Day and Lemmon in the passenger car of "Old 97." Day's blonde hair, light complexion and costume, and Lemmon's white suit give them a ghostly "glow" in an otherwise realistic setting. But I'm nitpicking because these faults are few and far between. Cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. (The Gene Krupa Story) has done a terrific job of capturing period small-town Americana at its best.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is excellent, enhancing both the score by George Duning (From Here to Eternity) and Ms. Day's rendition of the catchy title song, and "Be Prepared," an all-too-cute and monotonous Cub Scout anthem that may test your patience. The only extras are trailers for Gilda, It Should Happen to You, and You Were Never Lovelier. (Trust me, Sony's re-mastering of the latter film with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth is a knockout, so don't judge it by this miserable preview.)
It Happened to Jane takes you on a nostalgic ride to the end of a less complicated era, one on the cusp of social, moral, and political changes. You can read between the frames for those connotations, or you can simply enjoy this family-friendly film at face value. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
Not guilty! Hop aboard "Old 97" and see what things were like way back when.
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