Wednesday, October 15, 2014

'Lady By Choice' Was Frivolous But Funny

Patsy (May Robson): Old people are respectable in spite of themselves.

My guess is that May Robson was the prime attraction when "Lady By Choice" premiered on this day in 1934.

Robson was in her 70s. She was born before Abe Lincoln was elected president; she started her career on the stage, and, by 1934, she was playing crusty old ladies with hearts of gold on the screen.

Her co–star, Carole Lombard, was popular, too, though; in fact, 1934 is widely viewed as her breakthrough year. I just wonder if her following matched Robson's at that time. Besides, the movie that is often remembered as her best, "Hands Across the Table" with Fred MacMurray, premiered the next year.

Well, anyway, "Lady By Choice" was commercially successful and well received by critics. Personally, I thought it was kind of corny and predictable. It was silly at times — well, frequently, actually. But, I suppose, movies that were made 80 years ago are bound to be seen that way by 21st–century viewers.

I think it is always worth watching, though, to see Lombard's comic skills in action.

Lombard played a fan dancer named Alabam who was convicted of violating local ethics codes. Robson played a drunken vagrant who was asked to pose as Lombard's mother. Lombard was in it for the publicity — a mother figure would give her image a boost — but Robson's character took the assignment seriously and set about nudging Lombard's character toward a career as a serious actress.

They made an enjoyable team, Lombard and Robson. Unfortunately, I don't think they made another film together, either before or after making "Lady By Choice." That was truly a missed opportunity. Only eight years after "Lady By Choice" was in the theaters, both Lombard and Robson were deceased.

I suppose it is anyone's guess whether Lombard, who made six movies in 1934, could have competed in the Best Actress category against Bette Davis or the eventual winner, Claudette Colbert. In fact, though, I have always been inclined to believe that Robson might well have won Best Supporting Actress at the then–fledgling Oscars — but the category didn't exist until two years later.

"Lady By Choice" received no Oscar nominations. Perhaps it was viewed as too frivolous, and there might have been something to that. I've noticed a tendency by the Oscar committee to be sparing in its nominations of comedies. It's one thing if the comedy's humor makes a point in the process, but some comedies are just written for laughs with no thought given to any sort of broader implication.

In its day, giving "Lady By Choice" an Oscar nomination might have been comparable to giving one to "Porky's" half a century later.

Then again, "It Happened One Night" was a sensation at the Oscars that year, winning the five major awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Clearly, the Academy was receptive to comedies.