Friday, February 14, 2014

Marlene Steals a Baby

Marlene Dietrich plays a stage actress who falls in love with a baby and runs off with him in The Lady is Willing (1942). Elizabeth 'Liza' Madden (Dietrich) is walking home from the theatre one evening when she happens upon an altercation.  A baby has been found abandoned in a building and the neighborhood is in a tizzy.  A police officer hands Liza the baby, and it is love at first sight.  So, since the baby has no parents to speak of, Liza simply takes him home, and begins the role of Mom.

Of course, Liza quickly discovers that it's not that easy for a single woman to adopt a baby, much less a woman who is up to her ears in debt.  You see, Liza has a lovely apartment, wonderful clothing, and lots of debts.  She has a tendency to financially support relatives and friends - or dead-beats, as her assistant, Buddy (Aline MacMahon), calls them.  So, Liza must marry, and marry fast or little Corey (David James) will be taken from her.  She approaches Dr. Corey McBain (Fred MacMurray) to take on the dad role (Yes, there is a reason for the fact that Dr. and baby have the same name).  In exchange, he can switch from his specialty of pediatrics to what he really loves, research.  Of course, it will be a marriage in name only, and of course, Corey and Liza will begin to want a more lasting relationship.

This is a cute film; while not great literature, it was fun to see Marlene Dietrich doing a comedy.  Being, Dietrich, she is still intense, but she also makes the character likeable, if not a trifle naive.  And while Liza is not the brightest bulb in the pack (for example, she has a lot of trouble understanding Mr. Micawber's basic rule for financial happiness: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery."), she has a kind and loyal heart.  Naturally, she also has a magnificent apartment (thanks to production designer Lionel Banks) and spectacular gowns (by Irene). Amusingly, when she needs another apartment, she is easily able to get the one next door.  As New Yorkers, we found that quite funny (though, I have to admit, it was a lot easier to find housing in NYC in 1942 than it is today).

A bit of trivia about the clothing: In this TCM article, we learn that Dietrich injured her ankle very early in the production and was required to wear a cast.  She twisted her ankle attempting to protect the little David James, whom she was holding at the time.  Thus, for most of the film, she is wearing long evening gowns or slacks.  There is a brief glimpse of the magnificent Dietrich legs, but nothing more than that.  But it is a small price to pay to see some of the clothing she gets to model. This brief YouTube Video gives you a picture of the fall that caused the injury and the resulting cast:

Fred MacMurray is also very good as the pediatrician who dislikes children.  Corey McBain is initially hard to figure out.  He's cold and somewhat aloof, but once we meet his ex-wife, Frances (Arline Judge), and find out that his deeper ambition is to be a researcher, his alienation is much more understandable.  His soberness acts as a lovely contrast to Dietrich's exuberance.

But, for us, the standout performance in the film is Aline MacMahon.  She is always so good, sharp but affectionate.  Her regard for Liza is obvious, but not forced or phony. As usual, MacMahon gets some of the best lines in the film, and even without words, she is a riot (watch the clip from the film below to get a look her some of her excellent silent moments.

The film is filled with excellent character moments. Charles Lane as ambulance-chasing lawyer K. K. Miller is at his abrasive best.  Elizabeth Risdon as the child services worker Mrs. Cummings brings some interesting perspectives to what could be just an old-maid villain.  A married, working woman with children, Mrs. Cummings is a caring professional, who understands the yearning for a baby. We found it Interesting that she is "permitted" to work in an era when married women, especially were often banned from jobs. (Though released in 1942, The Lady is Willing was actually filmed in 1941, prior to U.S. involvement in World War II.)

The film also has some aspects that fly in the face of censorship.  When Lawyer Miller arrives with a couple who claim to be baby Corey's parents, Dr. McBain proposes a blood test to determine parentage.  Or, he queries, is the wife afraid that the test will prove her husband is not the father!  Liza's Broadway co-star, Victor, seems to be interested in her, but when McBain comments on Victor's bestowing a kiss on Liza, she remarks that "he kisses everyone".  Could Victor be gay?  We should add that we were impressed with Victor (Roger Clark), who proves to be a true friend to Liza in the end. 

The one drawback to the story was the sub-plot of McBain's ex-wife.  The storyline is contrived and the film would have been much stronger without her.  She felt like she stepped in from another movie; she never quite fit the picture we had of McBain, and her impact could have been compensated for in a more imaginative way. 

We refer you back to the TCM article listed above for a story about Dietrich making a play for MacMurray during the filming (he wasn't interested).  The article also contains a summary of a rather scathing review from The New York Times.  We felt that Mr. Crowther was not seeing the same film we were.   Variety, on the other hand, enjoyed it, as did our group.  We hope you have the opportunity to judge for yourself.


  1. great summary. i love this blog and look forward to the posts. these old movies are fascinating. I never notice all the things that you do. to me i either like the movie or not.

    1. It helps a lot when you can see the film with other people. We all notice different things, and as you talk about the film, other ideas come into play. We don't always agree, but generally we do all either like the movie or dislike it.


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