Delightful comedy western romp. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has re-released A Big Hand for the Little Lady, the 1966 feature from Warner's starring Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward, Jason Robards, Charles Bickford, Burgess Meredith, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Middleton, Paul Ford, John Qualen, James Berwick, and Gerald Michenaud. With that cast of boisterous scene-stealers, A Big Hand for the Little Lady would probably have landed in the "plus" column no matter how it turned out in the end. Luckily, the witty, clever script from Sidney Carroll, and genial direction from Fielder Cook, help brand A Big Hand for the Little Lady as one of the more enjoyable Western comedies that still holds up to repeat viewings. No need to double dip here if you bought this either as a stand-alone or as part of Warner's Leading Ladies Collection: Volume 2 set back in '07: it's the same great-looking disc here...with no extras.
Laredo, Texas. The territory's richest undertaker, Benson Tropp (Charles Bickford), furiously whips his hearse team of horses as he picks up first lawyer Otto Habershaw (Kevin McCarthy) at the courthouse, and rancher Henry Drummond (Jason Robards). Never mind that Habershaw was just getting ready to give a final summation that would save his client's life, or that Drummond was in the middle of marrying off his homely daughter: the men's annual high-stakes poker game was waiting in Laredo and nothing was going to stop them from attending. Already waiting at the table is rancher Dennis Wilcox (Robert Middleton), and cattle broker Jesse Buford (John Qualen). With the whole town going wild to know how the game is progressing, the arrival of poor, henpecked would-be rancher Meredith (Henry Fonda), his beautiful, disapproving wife, Mary (Joanne Woodward), and their grave little boy, Jackie (Gerald Michenaud) almost goes unnoticed...until gambling-fever Meredith begs his wife to just watch the game. Habershaw, clearly taking a fancy to the serene, lovely Mary, allows Meredith to watch, but Meredith's fever quickly takes over, and he manages to bet his family's entire $4,000 stake on one remarkable hand. When spiteful, needling Drummond demands the tapped-out Meredith to either meet another raise or fold, Meredith suffers a heart attack and soon it's up to Mary--who knows nothing about cards--to save the family fortune against the pack of heartless card sharks.
A staple of afternoon movie shows when I was growing up, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, with its sly, funny storyline and snarky one-liners, was a welcome sight in the local TV guide (having previously been written and performed for the DuPont Show of the Week in 1962, with its reliance on close-ups unlike other 60s widescreen Westerns, it played just fine on commercial-interrupted TV). I don't know how much of a success it was back in 1966 when it was released; no doubt it was green-lit after the success of Western spoof Cat Ballou and poker drama The Cincinnati Kid the year before, perhaps in the hopes of striking a hybrid hit. Bigger-scale Westerns from '66, like Nevada Smith, The Professionals, Duel at Diablo, Alvarez Kelly, Texas Across the River, The Appaloosa, Return of the Seven, and The Rare Breed probably pulled in more coin (if not, then certainly more publicity ink). However, with the exception of The Professionals, I'd say A Big Hand for the Little Lady holds up better than the rest, its genre-tweaking smart-assedness mixing delightfully with an almost lyrical whimsy that's quite unexpected in this particular subgenre.
Now, you and I both know there's a big surprise twist at the end of A Big Hand for the Little Lady, and no I'm not going to spoil it for anyone new to the movie by discussing it (which pretty much guts this review)...although anyone familiar with O. Henry shouldn't have any trouble seeing where the movie is going. Everyone seems to focus on that twist, and it's certainly artfully accomplished, as well as quite fun the first time you experience it. Already anticipating that climax, one can focus more intently on the performances, a task made easier by director Cook's big, tight close-ups. Robards is certainly the showiest here, creating a querulous, nasty blowhard that's hilarious in its absolute mean-spiritedness. Bickford, in his last big-screen appearance, uses his own reportedly real-life frosty demeanor to great effect as the woman-hating undertaker, while McCarthy is all smooth calculation, watching Woodward intently for signs of weakening under his stealth romantic manipulation. I've never been a big fan of Woodward (distant and too archly mechanical), but she's perfectly cast here, as is Fonda, who shows sweaty, sickly grinning weakness that's so different from his established screen persona. Not being able to discuss how the movie ends, I can say that once the twist is revealed, director Cook lingers past the surprise denouement, transforming the climax from one of bemused enjoyment at being tricked, to a wistful romanticism tinged with deep, deep cynicism that makes you wish the movie could have explored that angle more deeply.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.