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A Big Hand for the Little Lady

A Big Hand for the Little Lady
Warner DVD
1966 / Color/ 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 95 min. / Big Deal at Dodge City / Street Date November 6, 2007 / 19.98
Starring Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward, Jason Robards, Paul Ford, Charles Bickford, Burgess Meredith, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Middleton, John Qualen, Gerald Michenaud
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Production Design Robert Smith
Film Editor George Rohrs
Original Music David Raksin
Written by Sydney Carroll
Produced and Directed by Fielder Cook

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Also available as part of the Leading Ladies Collection-Volume 2 with I'll Cry Tomorrow, Up the Down Staircase, Rich and Famous and Shoot the Moon for 49.98

The delightful A Big Hand for the Little Lady is a surprise picture, one that can't be thoroughly discussed without being ruined. It's about a high-stakes poker game in a tiny western town, attended by pack of the meanest, most dedicated players imaginable. The highly original script is very tightly written and directed, which makes perfect sense considering that the show was adapted by Sidney Carroll from his own 1962 TV play, Big Deal in Laredo starring Walter Matthau, Teresa Wright and John McGiver. Director Fielder Cook also returned, making the film a second go-round for the project, with a stellar cast.


Five wealthy westerners convene for an annual no-holds-barred poker game that none would miss for the world. Lawyer Otto Habershaw (Kevin McCarthy) runs out on a client in the middle of trial and rancher Henry Drummond (Jason Robards) interrupts his own daughter's wedding ceremony. Of the other three, undertaker Benson Tropp (Charles Bickford) hates women, cattle dealer Jesse Buford (John Qualen) is a ruthless businessman and Dennis Wilcox (Robert Middleton) is meaner than any of the rest. Then a friendly homesteading couple and their son arrive to spend the night. Before she takes the wagon to be repaired, Mary (Joanne Woodward) allows Meredith (Henry Fonda) to watch the game, warning him that he's promised never to play again. Young Jackie (Gerald Michenaud) watches as well. Under the goading of the players, and unable to resist his own desire, Meredith buys into the game ... with his family's nest egg.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady is one of the key movies about playing cards, which is as it should be. Writer Sidney Carroll co-scripted Robert Rossen's The Hustler and the allure of poker brings the show to life. Fifty gawkers wait in the bar for news of who's ahead and who'd behind, while the players are more serious about their sport than anything else in their lives. All respected members of society, they embody the values that made them successful: tenacity, stubborness and a ruthless attitude toward business. They chide and insult Meredith when he politely observes their game, belittling the crummy forty acres he's bought in San Antonio, after ten years of hard work. When Meredith runs upstairs to buy into the game, his boy yelling 'No, daddy!' all the way, the other players just see him as a sucker to be fleeced. We know the worst will happen when Meredith's wife seems so concerned in his interest in the game; and from then on discussing the picture would risk spoiling its surprises. The film goes in some very interesting directions when Meredith starts to lose the farm money, and it would be fun to dig deeper. But it's too good of a picture to spoil.

The ensemble cast is the thing here, with Henry Fonda's rabid poker addict Meredith and Joanne Woodward's distraught wife Mary getting little more screen time than the other players. Jason Robards' Drummond has the wittiest lines, and is so up front with his willingness to let Meredith ruin himself, he's charming in a perverse way. Kevin McCarthy's lawyer Habershaw is attracted to Mary, making us concerned that he's encouraging Meredith to play, in order to get him out of the way. Charles Bickford's Benson Tropp shows the most hostility to Mary's presence at the poker game. Burgess Meredith is the town doctor, bitter that he works so hard and is yet so poor, and Paul Ford is the town's fussy banker. Other smaller roles are played by Virginia Gregg, Chester Conklin, Percy Helton, Ned Glass and Mae Clark. Carrying over from the TV play is James Berwick as saloon owner Sam Rhine. He keeps the players supplied with liquor and holds the money in his safe. "Who do you think is winning?" someone asks, and Sam answers, "I'm not in the thinking business."

Producer-director Fielder Cook makes the most of the carousing cowboys in the bar and the intense action at the gaming table; being able to do the same show twice is a definite advantage. The arrival of the various players allows for the original TV play to be opened up, and Lee Garmes' cinematography dotes on giant outdoor vistas.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady is known for its clever plot, but we also warm up to its characters. After all the insults and cruel jokes, the picture finishes with a sense of justice and smiles well earned. I've yet to find someone who saw it and didn't like it, but not too many people know the movie. The title is odd; one doesn't expect it to belong to a show with a western setting.

Warners' DVD of A Big Hand for the Little Lady is an exceptionally good looking disc. The colors are bright and the enhanced widescreen transfer looks and sounds great. No extras are included. The cover illustration shows a long stockinged leg, which belongs not to Joanne Woodward but to Marilyn Powell, who sings the song "Rosie" at the memorable finale.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Big Hand for the Little Lady rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 25, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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