Thursday, May 10, 2012

It Happened to Jane - 1959

“It Happened to Jane” (1959) leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling about small towns, lobsters, and trains. The leads Doris Day and Jack Lemmon are delightful in their chemistry, their comedy, and their ability to convey poignancy in their seemingly hopeless financial -- and romantic -- situation. Ernie Kovacs gives a tour-de-force performance as a greedy railroad owner with the aplomb of Snidely Whiplash.

The real star, many would agree, is the location shooting. Set in the fictional coastal Maine town of Cape Ann, it was really shot in the Connecticut River Valley town of Chester, Connecticut. Have a look at my Tuesday’s New England Travels blog for photos of what shooting locations in the movie look like today. Not a lot has changed in 50 years.

By the way, in this movie they sometimes refer to a nearby town called High River. In reality, Chester’s neighbor is Deep River.

In Dan Widener’s “Lemmon - A Biography” (NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1975), Jack Lemmon is quoted as recalling “It Happened to Jane” as “…a charming picture made when you could still do charming films.” (p.162).

This comment boils down, I think, the essence of the appeal this movie has for viewers today. It seems to document a time for us when childhood summers were lush and long, and Norman Rockwell-type towns were idealized.

It also documents for us, unwittingly, the beginning of the age when railroad companies began to cut down their service in an effort to force passengers away so that they could eventually drop passenger service as being less profitable than carrying freight. We discussed this on Monday’s post in “The Out of Towners” (1970) -- which graphically demonstrates the hell of train travel when it hit rock bottom in the last days when railroad companies were privately owned and bent on scuttling themselves. What happened next was the founding of Amtrak, and a new era in passenger train service.

This Saturday the 12th marks the 5th annual National Train Day in celebration of our national railroad. Have a look here for events and information.

The beginning of the end of private railroads -- that led to Jack Lemmon’s and Sandy Dennis’ hysterically horrible train ride -- all starts, it seems, over ten years earlier with Doris Day and her lobsters.

She has a mail order lobster business, and ships her stock -- via train -- to restaurants and country clubs in big cities far away. She receives the disastrous news that her latest shipment of lobsters never reached their destination because the railroad company suddenly cut back on staff to receive and process them. They are shipped back, dead by this time, to her small village.

Among the villagers you may recognize the voice, if not the face, of Parker Fennelly, who plays Homer the depot agent. He grew up in Maine, so his Down East accent is authentic. He was Titus Moody on Fred Allen’s “Allen’s Alley.”

Mary Wickes has a too-small role as the town switchboard operator and want-to-be “newspaperman”. I think my favorite line of hers is when she gets up in the middle of the night to answer a call on the switchboard with the greeting, “I’m warning you, Stupid!”

It’s Jack, frantic, and trying to reach Doris for the 100th time.

Doris Day is a widow with a small son and daughter. Her son is played by Teddy Rooney, Mickey’s boy in real life. Jack Lemmon is her childhood friend and would-be boyfriend. Their relationship is warm, sweet, and supportive, but there is a wall between them that is quite subtle and beautifully played.

As kids, they were a trio -- the third member being the lively, spirited boy, Hank, who grew up to marry Doris. Jack, we hear, was the first to propose -- when they were 12. But Hank, who could charm the birds out of the trees, beat his time. Her husband, now deceased, still casts a long shadow over Jack. One senses the shy boy never got over Doris, and never got over being second best to a more colorful, more dynamic, more charming pal.

Jack is the local small-town lawyer and routinely defeated candidate for selectman. He becomes Doris’ ally and advocate when she attempts to sue the railroad for damages.

The railroad is personified for us by the ramshackle steam train, “the Old 97”, and by the less cozy and not at all darling image of Ernie Kovacs, who plays the miserly mogul bent on squeezing every last dollar he can find. He’s terrific in the role, and one suspects it must have been a part he really enjoyed. He huffs and puffs and threatens to blow everyone’s house down. He bullies his enormous staff, who desert him one by one when his strong-arm tactics to revenge himself on a certain Maine widow with two children becomes too much to stomach. He brandishes cigars, calls women “broads” and is so much a railroad man that he sleeps in a bedroom nook that looks like a sleeper compartment.

One of his flunkies is Casey Adams, who’ll you’ll remember as the goofy husband in “Niagara” (1953) covered here. In later years, Adams went by his real name, Max Showalter. Like the rest of the cast, he was quite taken with the Chester, Connecticut filming locations. He eventually came back and settled in the Chester area in an old farmhouse.

(Goodspeed Opera House on the Connecticut River, photo by JT Lynch)

When he died, he left his collection of film and theatre memorabilia to the famed Goodspeed Opera House (pictured here just up the river in East Haddam) and the newly established Max Showalter Center for Education in Musical Theatre.

Doris Day thought that Chester was a “regular Garden of Eden” -- in an interview with Joe De Bona in the Bridgeport, Connecticut Sunday Herald of July 29, 1962 -- “…although there were too many lobsters in the picture to suit me.

“I don’t like lobsters much, and in that picture with Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs, I was in the lobster business. When they -- the lobsters -- looked at me with those beady eyes! Ugh! But I sure am crazy about Connecticut.”

Doris and Ernie wrangle legally about the railroad’s responsibilities until he cuts off service to the town, leaving them stranded. Though Mr. Kovacs’ character is obviously a silly cartoon, we note in Monday’s post on the train sequence in “The Out of Towners” (1970) and the establishment of Amtrak, that it was the goal of privately owned railroad companies to diminish passenger service in favor of more profitable freight lines.

“You can’t continue to run roughshod over the consumer,” he is advised. Oh, yes, he can.

“Every time one of your crummy commuters gets on my train it costs me four cents!”

Mr. Lemmon has a good line which he says with all the cynicism of his later character in “The Out of Towners” - “The distance between the right and the practical is a shame to the human race.”

The news about the lobsterwoman and the railroad magnate spreads in the media. Steve Forrest, a reporter from New York, is sent to get her story. She takes him on a tour of her town, and we get a history lesson on the composite past of small-town New England, in and around actual historic buildings in Chester, Connecticut, the stand-in for her fictional Maine village. A tour inside the quiet church, inside the town Meeting House, where we later return for town meeting. Actual Chester residents play the townspeople.

“Do you know where you are?!” Jack chastises the townspeople for abandoning the good fight in support of Doris, reminding them of their forefathers, who believed in Revolution.

When they need coal to run the train, they all scavenge some from their own coal bins. You may recall that in mid-20th century most homes and businesses in this country were heated by coal.

Steve is big city boy, a smooth operator and he falls for Doris. She is charmed by him, and flattered by the attention. The dazed, sickened expression on Jack Lemmon’s face when it hits him that he’s in a recurring nightmare of losing Doris to another man is really quite sad.

Another fun aspect to the film is the several real-life celebrities who get cameos when Steve brings Doris to New York. His scheme is to get her on the then popular TV game shows and panel shows to raise money for her legal defense against Mr. Kovacs.

Dave Garroway plays himself, as does Robert Paige of the “The Big Payoff, and Garry Moore, host of “I’ve Got a Secret”. His panel of Bill Cullen, Jayne Meadows, Henry Morgan and Betsy Palmer try to guess Doris’ secret, which flashed on the screen is “I’m Fighting the Meanest Man in the World.”  This segment of the movie cements the slower-paced 1950s world with a dose of real popular culture.

Meanwhile, Jack, left at home with the kids, is flipping out of his mind with jealousy. So frustratingly chaste is his relationship with Doris, that when he sleeps over her house to mind the kids while she’s gone, he fidgets for sleep on her couch. Apparently occupying her bed even when she’s not there is too forward for Jack. Or the censors.

We note the real-life locations in Tuesday’s New England Travels, but here we catch a clue to our Connecticut location with the presence of the television crew from WTIC- Channel 3, the CBS Hartford station.

Jack eventually comes into his own as the hero of the day in a last-minute suspenseful train run on “Old ‘97”, Doris is a genuine heroine to the nation of TV fans, and even Ernie turns out to be a hero in the end.

Despite Miss Day’s dislike of lobsters, I like their family pet, Sam the Lobster, who watches TV with the kids.  Mr. Lemmon makes a mad dash a couple of times to get him back to the water and his holding pen before he dies. He’s right up there with the seagull from “This Happy Feeling” and Samantha the Goose from “Friendly Persuasion” as my among my favorite animal actors. Lassie is all well and good, but I’ve always been more interested in character actors than stars.

Have yourself a happy National Train Day this Saturday. Make your next trip by train, and support the future of passenger rail service in this country.

(The blogger spends some quality time with an old friend.)

Or, just celebrate by cuddling up to a train.

One that isn’t moving.


Grand Old Movies said...

Thanks for your lovely post on one of my favorite Doris Day and train movies. It's a quietly charming and delightful film, which should be better known to Day fans. The scenes when the townspeople all pitch in to load the train with coal is one of the funniest, sweetest, and heartwarming-est bits ever. I also enjoyed Russ Brown's performance as Uncle Otis, who gets to drive Old '97 and always speaks of the train with respect.

One of the best things about this film is the real chemistry between Day and Lemmon; supposedly they wanted to make another film together, but it never materialized. A loss for the rest of us.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks GOM. I agree the chemistry between Day and and Lemmon is terrific. I know he regarded her as one of his favorite co-stars. You're right, it's too bad they weren't teamed up again.

Yvette said...

'One that isn't moving.' HaHA!! You are too much Jacqueline.

Well, I must admit I've never seen this movie. Never even heard of it. Jeez. I thought I'd seen just about everything Doris Day had ever done.

Okay, so I have some catching up to do. I'm definitely adding this to my TBW (To Be Watched) List. I do like the idea of Jack Lemmon and Doris Day together very much.

And I love train movies.

I'm also a big fan of Ernie Kovacs. I used to watch his show every morning - religously. I think he was a genius and he definitely died too young.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Yvette. TCM will show this once in a great while, but I only heard about it myself a couple of years ago.

I like Ernie Kovacs, too. Years ago our local PBS station played a season of his show. Loved it.

KimWilson said...

I haven't seen this, Jacqueline. I love Doris Day, though. She's big into animal rights--maybe she was worried about the mistreatment of lobsters? No, she just thought they were icky to look at.

The Lady Eve said...

Jacqueline, I first saw "It Happened to Jane" when I was a kid in a theater filled with nothing but other kids at a Saturday matinee (in my memory, matinees then were attended solely by 5 - 12 year olds - only the theater staff was older). I've been fond of the movie ever since, though it seems only recently that TCM began airing it.

I've enjoyed your celebration of National Train Day and you remind me that I've been meaning to take a trip on Amtrak's Coast Starlight route from San Francisco to L.A. I'm beginning to think that the next TCM film festival might be the ideal occasion...

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Kim, I guess lobsters are not the most cuddly creatures. However, on any New England seacoast street among summertime tourists you are likely to see small children hugging stuffed animals in the shape of red lobsters.

I have a small one myself glaring at me from the top of my file cabinet.

Her name is Linda.

Lady Eve, how neat to see this movie in a kids' matinee. I hope you get to take the Coast Starlight sometime. I've never been on that run (yet). Next TCM festival sounds good.

Laura said...

I loved the info that Adams/Showalter later moved to the area for real! Your post makes me want to pull this one out and have another look. :) Lemmon and Day made a great team.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. You can really re-live the movie by taking the Essex Steam Train that runs along the same route in the movie - have a look at my New England Travels blog for photos and info.

Unknown said...

I noticed the blue car that Jack and Doris drove from the railway station back to the meeting house had been in an accident. If you look closely at the passenger side of the car in both places you will notice a chrome strip is on the car but missing later and and mud on the front tire. I wonder what happened with the car between the two places?

Bill in Orlando said...

There are two iconic movies shot in New England (or Hollywood's equivalent). One is White Christmas, and the other is It Happened to Jane. I remember watching both as a kid in the late 50's, and have stuck with them ever since. It took me years to figure out that Pine Tree, Vermont never existed in real life, spending countless hour scanning maps to fine it.

It Happened to Jane was the second movie. Here's it's just the various scenes and locations are memorable. Back in the late 80's, I was fortunate enough to get a job in Wallingford (living there for 9 years), where on our occasional drives down to the coast, I tried in earnest to find one particular location.

It was the scene where just after Jane was shunned by the townspeople, she was walking her way home, when George came up in his Studebaker to beg her and the kids into the car. The background scene was an iconic New England pond emptying onto a man made waterfall.

I don't know, it's a short scene, and the background isn't all that spectacular, but it has a lot of sentimental meaning to me. To make this easy, the movie can be found on YouTube here:

Go to the scene at starting at 1:10:00. Hopefully, someone can locate it for me. If so, please locate it on Google Maps, and cut and past the URL to that location.


Bill in Orlando said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bill in Orlando said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for dropping by, Bill, and sharing your love for both "White Christmas" and "It Happened to Jane", and their locations, real or imaginary.

I can help you with that question you have about where the pond is with the man-made waterfall. It's right there in Chester, CT where much of the movie was filmed. Have a look here at this post on my New England Travels blog about the locations in this movie. There's a photo of the place, and other shots from the movie as they look now:

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

And here it is on Google maps:,High+St,+Chester,+CT+06412&gl=us&ei=eK2tUqWzL8qwygHAzYCYAw&ved=0CCYQ8gEwAA

Bill in Orlando said...

Thanks so much Jacqueline. I located the exact spot here with Google Street View:!q=high+street+chester+ct&data=!1m8!1m3!1d3!2d-72.4541!3d41.407098!2m2!1f274.79!2f87.17!4f77.3!2m9!1e1!2m4!1sSU-QFwcqbS-6C6JvHXc_7Q!2e0!9m1!6sNorth+Main+Street!5m2!1sSU-QFwcqbS-6C6JvHXc_7Q!2e0!4m12!2m11!1m10!1s0x89e63b9a291bc813%3A0x8c99a9930cd7efba!3m8!1m3!1d112181!2d-81.247107!3d28.520233!3m2!1i1024!2i768!4f13.1&fid=5

From this view though, it appears that they've drained the pond, and are doing some restoration work.

Of course, your Pièce de résistance is your
"Starring Chester, Connecticut" piece. Excellent job, and great pictures of the High Street waterfall. Thanks so much!

Happy holidays.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

You're welcome, Bill. So glad to be of help. Happy holidays.

John Klevecz said...

It Happened to Jane is special to my family. My mother was selected to play the wife of Aaron Caldwell, the Chester town selectman in the movie and has a speaking part about the parking meter revenues gathered from outside his general store in the town center. My older brother was one of the cub scouts delivering coal donated by town residents to fuel Old 97. We grew up in Deep River. A few years ago a niece provided every member of music family copies of It Happened to Jane on DVD. The Connecticut River valley was truly an idyllic spot for growing up in the mid-Twentieth Century!

Jack Klevecz

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

John, thank you so much for sharing your own family's personal history with IT HAPPENED TO JANE. How neat that your mother and brother were in the movie! I'm going to have another look at the movie one of these days and look for them. How fortunate you were to grow up in Deep River and the Valley in that era.

John Klevecz said...

One additional item not previously mentioned is that Michael J. Pollard made his movie career debut in this movie. He is briefly shown at the beginning of the town-wide effort to supply Old 97 with coal. Pollard is shown sneaking a bushel basket of coal from the coal bin of Aaron Caldwell's store and loading it into a panel truck for delivery to the train. Pollard is best known for his portrayal of C. W. Moss in the 1967 movie Bonnie & Clyde but it all began in Chester, CT in It Happened to Jane.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

That's great, thanks John. I didn't know Pollard made his movie debut in this movie. I really have to watch this again.

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