The vast majority of Republic Pictures' output consisted of B-Westerns and serials, but once in a blue moon they'd attempt a first-class A-picture. Many of these were tepid costume melodramas of which Lady for a Night (1942), an obvious fusing of two recent blockbusters, Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) plus bits of Showboat, exemplifies. Also around this time, John Wayne had outgrown his Republic Pictures contract, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) having promoted him to a kind of lower level A-status. However, permanent A-plus stardom came later, after the success of Red River (1948) particularly. In the early forties, Wayne alternated between Republic-originated projects and major movies for bigger studios, in which the actor typically played second fiddle to a leading lady whose popularity was in decline. During 1942-43 alone he did movies opposite Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Jean Arthur, and Paulette Goddard, all of whom were struggling to maintain their star status.
Lady for a Night stars Joan Blondell, an actress one usually associates either with her years at Warner Bros. during the 1930s, or for her later and equally memorable second career as a fine character actress during the 1950s-1970s. During production on Lady for a Night, Blondell was only 36 and still in decent shape physically, but it's still a bit strange to see her carrying a picture at this point in her career. Wayne, meanwhile, is pretty much wasted in a secondary part.
The movie is not good but mostly because of Blondell I'm glad to have seen it once. Olive Films' Blu-ray, licensed from Paramount, is a major improvement over an earlier VHS release but it's also not as pristine as their other Republic/John Wayne Blu-ray releases so far.
The story is set in Memphis during the Reconstruction. At a Mardi Gras celebration, Jenny Blake (Joan Blondell), half-owner of the Memphis Belle, a casino/showboat (and reportedly the source of the famous B-17 Flying Fortress's name), is elected Queen of the Carnival, a much-coveted title. However, it turns out that Jenny's business partner, Jack Morgan (John Wayne) rigged the election hoping the appalled reaction of Memphis's bluebloods to her crowning will finally end Jenny's efforts to join the social elite.
Instead, she impulsively strikes a bargain with alcoholic, bankrupt Alan Alderson (Ray Middleton), agreeing to rescue the Alderson plantation from foreclosure with her vast personal fortune in exchange for his prestigious name and, presumably, the respectability she so craves.
However, at the Manderley-like plantation, "The Shadows," Jenny meets openly hostile Aunt Julia (Blanche Yurka, in a role intended, not surprisingly, for Judith Anderson), who makes her distaste of Jenny clear from the outset. Only Julia's old maid of a sister, Katherine (Edith Barrett), accepts Jenny for whom she is. Jenny tries her best to assimilate into high society but Aunt Julia actively sabotages everything Jenny tries.
Lady for a Night plays better when one goes in expecting a Joan Blondell vehicle and not a John Wayne one. Although the movie is predictable and painfully derivative - Blanche Yurka's tight-lipped Mrs. Danvers imitation especially - worldly Jenny, her high society aspirations and continual disappointments, is nonetheless compelling in Blondell's hands, and it's not hard to dislike Memphis's pretentious elite. Jenny's friendship with Katherine is also undeniably effective.
But Ray Middleton (later Col. Thomas McKean in 1776) is hammy as the perennially drunk, ineffectual Alan. That broadly played I'd rather have seen Arthur Housman in the part. And Yurka's Aunt Julia is neither written nor acted with any subtlety.
The film's rose-colored depiction of the Old South during Reconstruction, quite similar to Gone with the Wind, is by modern standards singularly racist. In one scene Jack Morgan warns fat maid Chloe (Hattie Noel, who'd auditioned for the Hattie McDaniel part in Gone with the Wind), "Get out or I'll ship you back to Africa!" Chloe is Aunt Jemima personified, though Noel's performance is warm and funny. But racial stereotypes abound: a running gag has her terrified of ghosts, whipping out a voodoo talisman and chanting, while in another scene she literally bursts through a closed wooden door. Other blacks in the film, freed slaves still happily working for their former masters, are referred to as "darkies" and "pickaninnies."
And, as Randy Roberts and James S. Olson note in their excellent biography John Wayne - American, the movie's theme is also subtly distasteful: "Stay with your own kind."
Lady for a Night has two other small but distinguishing features: It was the first Republic Pictures release to feature the new company logo, Independence Hall, and it was the first movie in which Wayne was paid a guaranteed minimum vs. the picture's gross receipts. One doubts Lady for a Night was much of a box-office blockbuster, but the arrangement set a precedent from which Wayne would profit enormously in the years to follow.
Video & Audio
Sourcing 1950 reissue film elements, the black-and white Lady for a Night, in its original 1.37:1 standard format, looks pretty good but isn't as spectacularly pristine as, say, Olive's Blu-ray releases of John Wayne's earlier, 1930s B-Westerns for Republic. The audio, English mono only with no subtitle or alternate audio options, is fine. No Extra Features.
There's a certain irony that this story of a lowly casino-showboat owner yearning for respectability would be produced by a lowly B-movie studio similarly yearning to compete with in the Big Leagues. Lady for a Night isn't good but it's not bad either thanks to Joan Blondell's ingratiating performance, with an agreeable John Wayne in a decidedly minor supporting role. Still, mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.