Monday, March 24, 2014

indelible moment: Quine's "It Happened to Jane"

"It Happened to Jane," released by Columbia Pictures during the summer of 1959, is Richard Quine's plucky, affectionate and unabashed tribute to the filmmaker who put Columbia on the map - Frank Capra.

In fact, the film's working title was "Old 97 Goes to Market," a play on two Capra vehicles - "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936) and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), movies of staunch Americana that "Jane" successfully emulates.  While Capra was restricted largely to backlot filmmaking, Quine brought his story of a small-town lobster farmer and her first selectman-boyfriend into the open air of New England (Chester, Connecticut standing in for the fictional Cape Ann, Maine) and with a few vivid vérité touches.

Among the indelible moments in this charming film are a town meeting (with all the extras played by Chester residents) and a wildly inventive sequence in which Jane Osgood (Doris Day), feeling she needs an answer right now, climbs on the back of the engine of the locomotive Old 97 to coerce her lifelong boyfriend George Denham (Jack Lemmon) into proposing while he is hectically trying to shovel enough coal into Old 97's furnace to keep it moving.  As his Uncle Otis (Russ Brown) testily demands "More steam!," George struggles to divide his attention between the needs of both the speeding train and the impatient Jane.

Because of the din of the rushing, rumbling train, all of the dialogue is shouted and emphatic and George can't quite make out what Jane is trying to say to him. This is vérité at its most vigorous and exhilarating:

Jane: “George!  George!”
George: “What?!” 
Jane: “I think I’m getting married today!” 
George: “What?!” 
Jane: “I said I’m getting married today!”

 
George:  “Don’t be silly!
Jane: “I am not being silly!”
George:  “What are you talking about?!”
Uncle Otis (to George): “More stem!” 

 
George (trying to listen to both Uncle Otis and Jane): “What?! What?!!”
Jane: "Lawrence Clayborn Hall is waiting for me in Marshalltown and I am going to marry him!"
George:  “Just like that?!”
Jane:  “No, not  just  like that, George .  He asked me!”
Uncle Otis (to George):  “George, More steam! Steam!”  
George: “After knowing you for four days, he asked you to marry him?  I think he’s probably asked every girl he ever knew to marry him!  He’s neurotic or something.  If you remember correctly, I asked you to marry me 21 years ago!”
Jane:  “Yes, and you haven’t asked me since!”
George:  “What?!” 
Jane: “I’m a woman and I’m supposed to be married!   I’m a mother and I need a man to take care of me and my children!”
George: “You don’t have to go to Marshalltown to find one!”  

 
Jane: “Don’t I, George?”
George: “No!”
Jane: “Where can I find one?”
George: “You don’t have to go anywhere!  You can stay right in Cape Ann!”
Jane: “Can I, George?”
George: “You know you can!”
Jane: “Do I?” (a pause)  “Well, say it! Can’t you just say it?”
George: “Say what?!”
Jane: “Say anything!  Why can’t you be neurotic like Larry and say you’ll marry me?!”
George: “Well, you know I will!”
Jane:  “Oh, George!  You proposed!”

Uncle Otis (to George):  “More steam!”
George (murmurs to Uncle Otis): “Yeah, wait.”
Jane:George!  George!  You did!  You proposed!  George!”
George stops to climb up to where Jane is to kiss her.
Uncle Otis (to George):  “We need more coal!”
Jane (giddy with delight): “George, I love you!”
George climbs back down.
George (to Jane): “I love you!”
George (to Uncle Otis):  “What coal?”
Jane (again, giddy with delight): “George, I love you!”
George (to Jane): “I Love you!
George (to Uncle Otis):  “No coal!
Uncle Otis (quoting Teddy Roosevelt): “Bully!”
*   *   *
 A few notes on "It Happened to Jane"...
It's been rumored, falsely, that Harry Foster Malone, the monied villain played by Ernie Kovacs in “It Happened to Jane,," was modeled after Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941).

It's an easy assumption to make.  While the character's middle name, Foster, was probably borrowed from Welles, the name Harry itself actually comes from ... Harry Cohn, the legendary head of Columbia Pictures, which produced and released "It Happened to Jane."

True, the name Foster seems to be a dead giveaway but it's also a distraction. While we were working on a book together, Jack Lemmon told me that Kovacs' Harry Foster Malone was based directly on Cohn, who died while Lemmon, Kovacs and Quine were making "Bell, Book and Candle" the year before. Kovacs affected Cohn's look for his wicked impersonation by donning a bald plate for the film and gaining 40 pounds.

He also appropriated Cohn's infamously foul-tempered, autocractic and abrasive personality for the role.  There's really nothing of Charles Foster Kane in Kovacs' movie-stealing performance. Another film writer has speculated what Cohn thought of Kovacs' performance.

"Did he get the joke?," he asked.

No problem.  Cohn, as noted, died on February 27, 1958, during the filming of "Bell, Book and Candle"; "It Happened to Jane" went into production June 2, 1958 and ended shooting July 31 of that year.

Nevertheless, the Kovacs-Welles rumor has persisted, supported surprisingly by Turner Movie Classics which is usually never less than fastidious in its research.  I watch "Jane" whenever Turner airs it - I love the film - and in the introductions to the movie, the source of Kovacs' performance is invariably misidentified,   attributing it directly to "Kane."

Again, not true.
As noted earlier, "It Happened to Jane" started life as "Old 97 Goes to Market," originally positioned as another Lemmon-Quine collaboration with Jack in the role of a young widower with two children who raises lobsters for a living and has political aspirations in the small town where he lives.

I've no idea when it morphed into a Doris Day vehicle but both Quine and Lemmon were eager to work with her.

The film would go through more title changes - "Miss Casey Adams" and "As Jane Goes (As Maine Goes)"- before the studio settled on "It Happened to Jane."  No one involved in the film particularly liked that moniker but it lent itself to a terrific, catchy title song by Joe Lubin (who worked often with Doris Day) and Irvin J. Roth (aka, Adam Ross), sung by Day over the main credits.

The movie was in post-production when the studio came up with yet another title, "That Jane from Maine," and had the composers rewrite "It Happened to Jane," changing the lyric but retaining the music.  (That version of the song remained unreleased until it popped up on a Day album and subsequent CD; it can currently be heard on the CD, "Golden Girl.") But there was a problem: While "That Jane from Maine" was a better title, "It Happened to Jane" was the better song.  So back to the original.

At least,I think that's the song/title chronology.  It's madding.

In the meantime, Columbia had commissioned Marvin H. Albert to write a novelization of Norman Katkov and Max Wilk's script.  The book was printed and ready to go under the title "That Jane from Maine" - it was too late to change - while the film went into theaters as "It Happened to Jane."

There were some theaters which sold copies of the softback novelization at their concession stands, certainly confusing their patrons.

"It Happened to Jane" was a good film that came at the wrong time for everyone concerned - its two stars, the public and the critics, who hastily dismissed it.  Both Lemmon and Day were at the crossroads in their respective careers and "Jane," released in June of 1959, just didn't seem to fit in.  Lemmon had a personal triumph three months earlier in March in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (which was actually shot after "Jane") and Day was poised to reveal a major makeover with the October release of Michael Gordon's "Pillow Talk." Both were frank, sexed-up films.

By comparison, "It Happened to Jane" seemed a tad old-fashioned.

And a little square.

 
"Some Like It Hot" and "Pillow Talk" brought both Lemmon and Day well-deserved Oscar nominations as best actor and best actress.  Impressed by this and in an effort to salvage "It Happened to Jane," Columbia re-released the film in 1960, shortly after the Oscarcast and before the Summer release of Lemmon's next big Oscar-bait hit, "The Apartment." And, yes, there was yet another title - and another title song (credited to "By" Dunham) - "Twinkle and Shine." But it was too late.

It would take"It Happened to Jane" several decades before it was recognized as the smart, alert farce that it is or before its undervalued maker, Richard Quine, would be appreciated as an auteur.

I may be a majority of one but it's my opinion that the train sequence showcased at the start of this essay is as good as anything that Billy Wilder gave Lemmon to do in "Some Like It Hot" or "The Apartment," or that Day got to do in "Pillow Talk" and her subsequent modern comedies.

11 comments:

Griff said...

I don't doubt what you say (of course), but I think there is something of the late-in-life C.F. Kane in Kovacs' performance as Malone. I've felt that since I was a little boy, anyway.

joe baltake said...

I'm sure the middle name of Foster is no accident, Griff. I'm just reporting what Jack Lemmon told me and, given that he, Kovacs and Quine were every close - and given that all three had first-hand (and not always pleasant) dealings with Cohn, I see no reason to doubt what he told me. As I said in my piece, the name "Foster" is a huge distraction.

Alex said...

You're right. A fine comedy whose time has come. Finally. Lemmon characteristically blends angst and desire to the point of near-delerium. It's one of his best,unhearalded performances, up there with his work in "The Apartment." Personally, I think he worked better with Quine than with Wilder. He and Quine seemed more like soul mates.

joe baltake said...

Jack is less showy, more naturalistic in his Quine films than he is in any of his Wilders, where he often veered off into caricature. Not a bad thing. I always find Lemmon appealing. But he's so wonderful when he's low-keyed and less wound-up.

Tom Worrell said...

Encouraging post. Thanks. I look to it as a good source for not only further Quine study, but insights into the ever-underrated Doris Day.

jbryant said...

JANE lacks that truly dark strain that makes Capra's supposed "corn" so resonant (lobster activists may disagree!), but it's pretty effective as a David vs. Goliath yarn and it's cleverly plotted and perfectly charming. Day and Lemmon make a surprisingly good match, perhaps because their romantic relationship is almost completely repressed until literally the last possible moment.

wwolfe said...

I made a point of watching this on TCM directly as a result of your writing about it here on a prior occasion. I liked it enough to buy the DVD - so, thanks! Reading the story of the ever-changing title made me laugh - it's so show business.

jan said...

I always loved the title song from "It Happened to Jane." It's so much like Doris Day herself - likable and positive. You mention that the replacement song, "That Jane from Maine," was recorded and included on a couple Day albums and CDs. Was "It Happened to Jane" ever recorded? I'd love to be able to hear it again and again and get to know the lyric better. Thanks!

joe baltake said...

Jan- Both "It Happened to Jane" and "Be Prepared" (the song played during the cub scout cookout) were recorded by Day for an extended play record. To the best of my knowledge, however, "It Happened to Jane" never made a Day album. Which is kinda strange.

As for the song's lyric, here goes:

"Love can be stormy or filled with sun.
Full of sadness or with fun.
It's a thrill when you're the lucky one - it happened to Jane!

"Love can be tender or even cruel.
Make the wise man such a fool.
But there's one exception to the rule - it happened to Jane!

"Love is like an april shower.
It takes you unaware.
Love is like a summer flower.
It needs a lot of care!

"Love can be cold or warm as spring.
High and low just like a swing.
It can end up with a wedding ring.
It happened to...
It happened to Jane!"

Lisa said...

I think that both you and Ben are correct. I've read where Ernie Kovacs based his performance as Harry Foster Malone on Harry Cohn. But the middle name Foster definitely comes from "Citizen Kane." Just sayin'.

jan said...

Thanks, Joe!