New York city gal Molly J. Truesdale (Jean Arthur) has three would-be boyfriends vying for her hand. She eludes them by hopping aboard a tour bus sightseeing around the open west. At the annual rodeo in Fairfield, a bucking bronco chucks handsome cowboy Duke Hudkins (John Wayne) literally into Molly’s open arms. Instantly smitten with each other, the pair spend a fun-filled night chatting and carousing around town. Come the next morning however, Molly discovers the tour bus took off without her. So she hitches alongside Duke, hoping to rejoin the bus at its next stop in Gold City and hopefully convince the cowboy she is the girl for him.
John Wayne was not known for screwball comedies, but he made his fair share. A Lady Takes a Chance remains one of his more obscure movies, even though it drew some good notices and was RKO’s third highest grosser of 1943. It is a sweet little romantic comedy, loosely plotted and goofy but full of smart visual gags and engaging characters. Wayne plays it breezy and affable throughout the episodic buffoonery and proves a fine comic foil for the charming Jean Arthur. Arthur was arguably the definitive actress associated with screwball comedy, regularly cast as the gutsy, fast-talking, strong-minded, big city girl, although she shows a sweeter, more vulnerable side here.
There are elements of a culture clash at work in the story, as the city slicker proves savvy enough to spot loaded dice at the local casino, but can’t always comprehend country ways. However, the film offers an interestingly modern depiction of the west, trading the grandeur of old John Ford movies for a thriving social scene and bars full of hot jazz and jitterbug dancers. By far Molly’s biggest wild west faux pax occurs whilst shivering late one night on the prairie when she steals a blanket off Duke’s horse causing the poor animal to catch pneumonia. As they nurse the horse back to health, Molly discovers Duke may be tough but he is also decent and sensitive. In other words: the right man for her. Duke’s crusty old pal Waco (Charles Winninger) warns her she is “barking up the wrong cowboy”, but Molly remains adamant: “Any man who can love a horse can love a girl.”
All romantic comedies run on sexual tension and A Lady Takes a Chance interestingly switches that tension between hero and heroine. The first half of the movie finds Molly clearly attracted to Duke, but also a little wary of his motives as it turns out he really is trying to get her into bed. Thereafter the second half turns the tables and puts Duke on the run. Molly endeavours to domesticate the big galoot by cooking him a fancy dinner and enlists his help in washing the dishes. But the plan backfires once Duke gets a glimpse of himself in a big, frilly apron.
Aside from the likeable leads the supporting players include a typically ebullient Phil Silvers as the fast-talking tour guide and Hans Conried, atypically cast as a regular Joe and not a foreign-accented eccentric, as one of Molly’s many suitors.