The Lady is Willing (1942 USA 92 mins)
Prod Co: A Charles K. Feldman production, Columbia Prod, Dir: Mitchell Leisen Scr: James Edward Grant and Albert McCleery, story by Grant Phot: Ted Tetzlaff Ed: Eda Warren Art Dir: Lionel Banks and Rudolph Sternad Mus: W. Franke Harling
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Fred MacMurray, Aline MacMahon, Stanley Ridges, Arline Judge, Roger Clark, Marietta Canty.
* * *
A spendthrift stage star (Dietrich) astonishes her entourage (MacMahon, Ridges, Canty) by deciding to raise a foundling baby. Her instant motherhood is as impractical as it is impulsive. This brings her into contact with a pediatrician (MacMurray). He is ‘the best’ at his job though he says that he detests children; his real interest is in research. In order to adopt the baby she proposes a marriage of convenience – he gets research funds, she gets a doctor on the premises. It’s a business arrangement: no sex. Of course complications develop, and eventually.
This was Dietrich’s next film after Manpower. It was not a good career move, a thin comedy that failed to bring out the best in its stars and its director (although it’s credited as his production). It demonstrates a frequent deficiency of the old studio system: think of a situation, contrive a few twists, garnish with a little wit, and it’s ready as a vehicle for any combination of available stars; don’t worry about dramatic logic and ideological ambivalence, just rely on the stars’ presence to keep the box office turning over until the next ‘big’ picture is ready for release. Leisen and MacMurray made some classic movies under this system when the script got it right, but The Lady is Willing isn’t one of them.
Confronted with the task of portraying a vapid character, Dietrich succeeds only in making her brittle. The character is a parody of maternalism, but the performance is not. This is surprising, given Leisen’s skill with other comedies and Dietrich’s superb parodic sketches of ‘silly’ women for von Sternberg in parts of Dishonored and The Scarlet Empress. But in these earlier films she was playing roles within roles, mocking the popular perception of feminine weakness as a knowing strategy by the character. Also she was able to go the other extreme for von Sternberg and enact the fierce desperation of maternal love (Blonde Venus). It seems as an actor Dietrich had a great talent for mockery of the attitudes of other characters in the drama (and of the audience!) but she couldn’t mock the character she had to play.
Not that The Lady is Willing will be a waste of your time. It is shallow for the most part but professionally smooth (as long as you don’t worry about the script’s treatment of the child as a plot device rather than a person), and there are a few tender moments when the director seems to be concerned that something like real emotion should be happening between the principals.