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 one of its most vivid chapters. In it, a mystery woman ‘Jane Doe’ (played by the aforementioned Miss Ralston), is arrested for the murder of Stephen Curtis (John Carroll), recently returned to the US after 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. 

Circumstances bring about a second trial in which the details of Jane’s story, told mostly 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. Meredith’s undertaking of Jane’s defense becomes a cause célèbre. The lawyer makes it clear she has her reasons, though it’s not apparent what they are - apart from some curious empathy for the accused. However, as the trial progresses, it becomes obvious that Stephen Curtis, were he not dead, would have to answer to both Jane Doe and his wife.


Equal parts romantic melodrama and noirish thriller, I, Jane Doe turns on a clever screenplay by Lawrence Kimble (San Quentin, 1946, Criminal Court, 1946, Mystery in Mexico, 1948). Kimble toiled in the Hollywood trenches for over three decades both in film and television, retiring with nearly 150 screenwriting credits under his belt. Nicknamed, ‘Nimble’, he was known for his imaginative plotting as well as a penchant for adult dialog, both much in evidence here. Though director John H. Auer (The Flame, 1948, City that Never Sleeps, 1953, Hell’s Half Acre, 1954) brings little by way of style to the movie, he knows well enough how to tell a story and do so briskly. 

Oscar-nominated Ruth Hussey, an elegant, persuasive actress is well-suited to the role of Eve Curtis. A former model, Hussey brings the same unmannered charm and professional crispness as to films for which she’s better known: The Philadelphia Story, 1940, The Uninvited, 1944, and The Great Gatsby, 1949. While I, Jane Doe occasionally tests our confidence, Hussey elevates the film with the certainty of her performance.


As for credibility, what about Vera Hruba Ralston? Few Hollywood stars suffered such scorn as the Czech-born actress. Her acting was wooden, her accent thick, and everyone knew she was married to head of Republic Studios, Herbert J. Yates who insisted on foisting his wife on an unwilling public, as well as 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. However, Ralston was cooperative, hardworking and eager to please and, over time, her acting improved. Though she's 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. 


Overall, I, Jane Doe is a surprise, its script and cast beyond the ordinary by B standards. But what’s most striking is the film’s very 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. Even though the women carry the dramatic and moral weight of the film, there’s no assertion of feminist exceptionalism in I, Jane Doe. Equality of the sexes is assumed. Abilities and ambitions, entitlements and rights are all on the table - which 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!”


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; 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.


Gary Deane

4 comments:

  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!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    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.

      Delete
    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."

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

    ReplyDelete

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