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It Happened to Jane

It Happened to Jane
1959 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 97 min. / Jane from Maine, Twinkle and Shine / Street Date February 22, 2005 / 19.94
Starring Doris Day, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Steve Forrest, Russ Brown, Mary Wickes, Max Showalter
Cinematography Charles Lawton Jr.
Art Direction Cary Odell
Film Editor Charles Nelson
Original Music George Duning
Written by Norman Katkov, Max Wilk
Produced by Martin Melcher, Richard Quine
Directed by Richard Quine

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

It Happened to Jane is a generic but well-made Doris Day vehicle that marshalls its assets to reasonably good effect: Wholesome people living in a community free of any modern problems learn a few lessons about citizenship and the American spirit by going up against an unfeeling railroad magnate. The messages are the expected homogenized pap mainly because the tycoon turns out to be a swell guy; virtuous values are barely strained, let alone tested.

But the personalities are fun and the supporting cast is excellent. The film is lavish for a Columbia production of the time, with plenty of beautiful Maine locations and some pleasant episodes with an old steam locomotive that chugs to life to deliver Doris Day's gourmet lobsters.


Maine lobster farmer Jane Osgood (Doris Day) is a widow with two kids and a lawyer boyfriend in the person of George Denham (Jack Lemmon). He's too unimaginative to propose to her, as he once did when they were 11 years old. When the railroad run by big wheel Harry Foster Malone (Ernie Kovacs) ruins a shipment of Jane's best crustaceans, Jane refuses to take a low-ball cash settlement that doesn't include the damage to her business reputation. She wins in a local court against Malone's thoughtful attorney Selwyn Harris (Casey Adams) but is told that her chances the expected appeal is next to hopeless. Undaunted, Jane retaliates by lawfully seizing one of Malone's trains, "Old 97." That starts a legal and publicity war that runs Jane ragged while thoroughly "villainizing" Malone to the point that his own executives start quitting on him. Even George is at his wit's end, especially when handsome New York reporter Larry Hall (Steve Forrest) beats him to the draw with an attractive-sounding marriage proposal.

Doris Day is an under-appreciated actress more or less steamrolled by her squeaky-clean screen persona. She carries It Happened to Jane in the palm of her hand and enlivens scenes that otherwise wouldn't have a chance, such as two or three expendable Cub Scout weenie roasts. Yes, a couple of songs are sung along the way, but that was par for family films of this kind in 1959. 1

Very much in the vein of The Solid Gold Cadillac, It Happened to Jane pits one honest and forthright female entrepreneur against unfeeling big business. She's a real daughter of the revolution with roots back to the beginning of the country, and Katov and Wilk's script make a big deal out of the petty politics of her small Maine township being the bedrock of American democracy. When shoddy railroad policy ruins her lobster business, Jane determines to fight back. It's in her blood.

It Happened to Jane isn't a fantasy but its idealized community might as well be. The worst problem in this corner of Maine is a broken parking meter and a bully of a mayor (Selectman) that always gets his way. Jane doesn't have a lot of local help going up against the railroad. Her present best friend George is always being compared unfavorably to her decisive, forceful but unfortunately dead husband. He simply informed her that they were getting married, apparently something she liked. George quivers at the thought of opposing Harry Foster Malone's lawyers, and is made to look something less than dashing in his scoutmaster shorts and uniforms. Capable actor Jack Lemmon handles everything well but still seems to be trying too hard to form a character, as he often did in his Columbia contract days - It Should Happen to You is an example of Lemmon at his best and Fire Down Below shows him woefully miscast.

The immensely talented Ernie Kovacs was also much misused in his Columbia films, and his Daddy Warbucks- style freebooting railroad boss here hardly requires him to make an effort. Harry Foster Kane, I mean Malone's brash style isn't as crass as Broderick Crawford's in Born Yesterday and we can see that Day's gleaming wholesomeness will reduce him to a creampuff. His nasty boardroom tricks eventually leave Jane with possession of a steam train, not realizing that she has access to a retired but legally qualified engineer (played by Russ Brown of Damn Yankees). When George finds his political feet (after a rather cheesy Capra-ish "honest talk" grandstand in front of the bovine townspeople) Jane can also rally the town to provide her train with the coal needed for an express lobster delivery run down to the vicinity of New York. Harry cruelly reschedules her train on a ridiculous time-wasting route, but the overwhelming negative publicity prompts all of his executives to quit (pardon me while I fall down laughing at that one) and Jane's tenacity wins him over. See? Decency and fair play win every time, because this is America!

That storyline is to be expected in a 1959 movie and it's completely unfair to fault It Happened to Jane for it, especially in a movie so cleverly written and well performed. There is a bit of an anti-sophisticate bias, when slick NY reporter Steve Forrest tries to corner Jane into marriage. She's already been on every name TV show in the Big Apple from I've Got a Secret? with Garry Moore to a Dave Garroway show. (spoiler) Forrest gets the answer to his proposal in rather a rude way - instead of telling him the bad news, Day and Lemmon kiss each other on the steam engine, and follow that up with hostile looks. Forrest is at least partially responsible for Jane's positive publicity campaign, and it is indeed his 'corrupt' media that build up her cause when her own small-town neighbors are apathetic. But Jane, George and the script show him no mercy.

Jayne Meadows, Henry Morgan and Betsy Palmer are quiz show panelists, perhaps working off their Columbia contracts. Sheriff Philip Coolidge is also in The Tingler of the same year, same studio. Familiar face Casey Adams, sometimes billed as Max Showalter, is the most honest and concientious of Kovacs' legal team. And the best bit role is Mary Wickes' telephone operator; she hits just the right note of small-town mentality.

Columbia's DVD of It Happened to Jane comes in a handsome enhanced transfer with great color that displays Doris Day's bright dresses and the ruddy red of her "pet" lobster Sam, the one that's always trying to get into the female lobster pen. Her songs are clear and undistorted on the audio track along with George Duning's light score. There are no extras beyond a string of familiar Columbia trailers.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, It Happened to Jane rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 19, 2005


1. When Day turned to light comedy, she took on two kinds of roles. The stubborn virgin in her Rock Hudson movies was always confronted by the specter of SEX, as if the freedom to be a free agent and choose whether to bed or wed were a bothersome nuisance. Jane is one of several pictures where she played a young married mother or widow (as did Debbie Reynolds in some Doris Day wannabe vehicles). The film seems to say that because she's a widow, the big issue of sex is already out of the way, allowing Day's character to concentrate on supposedly deeper problems. Jane acts playful and carefree but never shows anything resembling mating instincts, and this is presented as wholesome and correct. Now it plays just one step this side of the grotesque denial in something like Night of the Hunter (Now I'd like to see that movie with Doris Day in Shelley Winters' widow role!).
Suitor Steve Forrest seems to be attracted to Jane simply because she has civic spirit. As for Jack Lemmon's character, he's so sexless that we think he and Jane will be better off roasting weenies with the Cub Scouts. The real romantic in Jane is a gutsy lobster named Sam, whose urge to cross over to the female side of the holding pen provides the only honest lust in sight. The prevailing attitude toward screen lust in 1959 is maintained, as those sinning crustaceans get what they deserve by being boiled alive!


DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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