Monday, 8 June 2015

I, JANE DOE (1948)

“Whenever I ‘m unhappy with a performance, I look through the TV Guide and try to find a Vera Hruba Ralston picture to watch," because I know, no matter how bad a performance I may have given, I could NEVER be as bad as she was!” Maureen Stapleton to Johnny Carson, 1962

In the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s, Republic Studios wrote the book on smart, well-crafted B thrillers, with I, Jane Doe being one of its freshest and most inviting chapters.

‘Jane Doe’ (played by the aforementioned Miss Ralston), is arrested for the murder of Stephen Curtis (John Carroll), who’s recently returned to the US following war service in France. Jane is brought to trial without information as to who she is, what her relationship with Curtis might have been, or any suspected motive for the killing. She refuses to say anything in her own defense and is convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair. 

However, circumstances bring about a second trial in which the details of Jane’s story, mostly told in flashback during the proceedings, are revealed – thanks to a carefully orchestrated defense by her new attorney, Eve Meredith Curtis (Ruth Hussey), wife of the man whom Jane is charged with having killed.

Not unexpectedly, Meredith’s undertaking of Jane’s defense becomes a cause célèbre. But Meredith makes it clear she has her reasons, even if it’s not so clear what they might be, apart from a curious empathy for the accused. And as the trial progresses, it becomes obvious that Stephen Curtis, were he not dead, would have some answering to do to both Jane Doe and his wife and must now “stand alongside the accused” in the courtroom.

Equal parts romantic melodrama and noirish thriller, I, Jane Doe has an imaginative and finely-filigreed screenplay by Lawrence Kimble (San Quentin 1946, Criminal Court 1946, Mystery in Mexico 1948). Kimble toiled in the trenches for over three decades both in film and television, retiring with nearly 150 screenwriting credits under his belt. Nicknamed, ‘Nimble’, the writer was known for his clever, involved plotting as well as his penchant for notably more adult dialog, both of which are in evidence in I, Jane Doe.

Though director John H. Auer (The Flame 1948, City that Never Sleeps 1953, Hell’s Half Acre 1954) doesn’t bring much by way of style to the movie, he understands well enough how to tell a suspenseful story and tell it briskly. But at 85 minutes long, I Jane Doe is more than just an off-the-shelf quickie.

Suited to the role of Eve Meredith Curtis was Oscar-nominated Ruth Hussey, an elegantly persuasive actress whose unmannered portrayal is central to the film. A former model, Hussey brings both femme charm and professional crispness to the part, just as she did to the films for which she’s better known: The Philadelphia Story 1940, The Uninvited 1944, and The Great Gatsby 1949. Hussey elevates I, Jane Doe with her believability, in a film that occasionally tests confidence in it. 

As for credibility, and what of Vera Hruba Ralston? Few Hollywood stars suffered such scorn as the Czech-born actress. Her acting was generally wooden, her accent thick, and worst of all she was married to head of Republic Studios, Herbert J. Yates who insisted on foisting her on an unwilling public, as well as her fellow actors. John Wayne, her co-star in The Fighting Kentuckian 1949, threatened to leave the studio if ever forced to work with her again. Sterling Hayden reportedly asked for and received a healthy bonus to appear opposite her in Timberjack in 1955.

Otherwise, Ralston was known to be cooperative, hardworking and eager to please and, over time, her acting improved. Though she is mostly emotional and weepy in I, Jane Doe, it’s because the part asks her to be. And as Annette Dubois (Jane’s real name) is a foreigner, Ralston’s accent is hardly distracting and there's no cause to trash her performance here.

But livening the movie up are John Howard (who featured as Bulldog Drummond) as Bill Hilton, a District Attorney and friend of the Curtis’, Benay Venuta as Eve’s assistant, Phyllis Tuttle and Gene Lockhart as prosecuting attorney, Arnold Matson. Lockhart was an Oscar-nominated character actor whose jowly forthrightness won him roles in over 300 movies.

Overall, I, Jane Doe is a surprise, both script and cast beyond ordinary by B standards. But what’s striking is the film’s ultra modern outlook towards its female characters, their sense of themselves, their relationships both with men and each other, and their place in the world.

Eve Meredith is a sophisticated, successful Manhattan lawyer and nothing more or less is made of that fact. Her assistant, Phyllis, is equally as smart and has a quick wit not limited to wisecracks. Jane/ Annette is a sad case but although a victim, is not given to wearing the mantle of victimhood. She's resilient, brave, and acts out of justifiable conviction.

But even though the women carry the dramatic and moral weight of the film, there’s no assertion of proto-feminist exceptionalism in I, Jane Doe. Equality of the sexes is assumed. Abilities and ambitions, entitlements and rights are all on the table - which in this case looks to be dead-level.   

Adele Mara plays a brassy ‘showgirl’, Marga-Jane Hastings, who goes to see Eve about a breach of promise suit against a man, at first unnamed. However, she’s told right off that such suits are not legal in the state. Marga-Jane responds, “You mean a guy can take me around, tell me he’s not married, promise me the moon with a blue ribbon around it, get me to quit my job so he can ‘spend more time’ with me, and then just kiss me and not pay for it? I don’t believe it!”

However, the man in question turns out to be Stephen Curtis, who has a lot to pay for, and does so with his life. In the real world this kind of finality can’t be condoned; fortunately, in the world of I, Jane Doe it can be celebrated. The movie ends with a bravura, operatic reckoning of the damage done and the satisfaction that comes with seeing everyone, for better or worse, getting what they deserve. C'est la vie, c'est le noir.

NOTE: The only video copy in circulation of this title is about as bad it gets and still watchable. However, once the story takes hold, the pain goes away.  


  1. Great write-up Gary. I've seen this one before with the intention of writing it up, but I don't remember it with the same affection as you. I'll give it another try soon!

    1. I hope not too much affection. But you know how it goes. Right film, right day. It's definitely much better than than anyone intended it to be. Cheers.

    2. Very, very nicely done my friend. As GG in your country would say, "I'll have to move this one to the top of the stack."

  2. Gary,
    Once again your account both informs and inspires. Now I have to go looking for this film.



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