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The Lady in Question (1940)

TCM’s Star of the Month for July is Glenn Ford and, on the surface, I’m not immediately giddy. No disrespect but Ford’s never excited me as a performer. He’s been part of some fantastic movies, but I’d never considered him one of my favorite performers. However, I do love him opposite Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), and while I knew he and the Love Goddess worked in four other features together, I’d yet to see them. Fortunately, TCM showed four of the five and I was able to catch their first pairing together.

The Lady in Question is one of in the little known classic film genre of “take a defendant home to the family” (see Remember the Night, released the same year). In this case, Andre Morestan (Brian Aherne) is a Frenchman incredibly happy to do his civic duty and serve on a jury. The case he’s a part of is a murder trial involving Natalie Roguin (Hayworth), a young woman accused of murdering a wealthy man who supplemented her lifestyle. Natalie is acquitted and Andre, taking pity on her lack of prospects, invites her to work in his bicycle shop. But another juror is convinced Natalie is innocent and that, coupled with Andre’s son (Ford) falling for the woman, leads to all manner of complications.

By 1940 Hayworth remained an untested entity, so it’s no surprise this isn’t her or Ford’s movie. Instead, it’s a leading man role for Brian Aherne, an actor who certainly plays a garrulous father well, complete with a set of ridiculously garish bushy eyebrows and a mustache. If the goal is to make him look like a 50-year-old take on Life With Father it’s a little much. His Andre takes the love for his country seriously, to the point that when he’s just an alternate juror he takes offense. The film is set in France so the legal system is meant to be different, but it’s hard not to presume Natalie would have been acquitted fairly early on the flimsy evidence that’s used against her.

Aherne isn’t particularly engaging or compelling. It’s a typical Dad role (again, note the eyebrows!), so it’s no surprise that the film peppers the frame with a bevy of colorful supporting characters. Ford and Hayworth come alive under the direction of Charles Vidor; it’s no surprise he’d helm them in two more features, including Gilda. Glenn Ford’s babyface is surprising to see if you’ve only watched him in hardboiled works when he was older. His performance as Pierre seems more tailormade for an actor younger than him, but Ford’s grin is infectious. Pierre is an astronomer who talks of trading in facts but falls under Natalie’s spell, and really who can blame him?

Rita Hayworth plays a character similar to another of her earlier ventures, Angels Over Broadway (1940). Like that film, she’s a meek young woman thrust on the wheel of misfortune. In this case, her beauty put her in the path of a bad man who ends up dead. The movie’s plotline involves a host of men questioning whether she’s innocent or guilty, and that’s after she’s been acquitted of murder! The movie becomes very silly towards the end, especially once Andre decides Natalie must be a murderer because she’s turned Pierre into a lovesick dope who would consider stealing. Seems a taste far-fetched.

And let’s not forget the subplot involving Evelyn Keyes as Pierre’s daffy dancing sister, and the local resident constantly swapping his tandem bike for a single when he’s dumped. These characters are humorous and infuse color into the story, even if they don’t feel completely coherent within the narrative. It’s like the execs felt the feature was too dour and needed these characters.

The Lady in Question peters out by the conclusion but seeing baby Ford and Hayworth in their first pairing makes it worthwhile. It’s easy to see why Aherne wasn’t ever a bigger name and he distracts with his aesthetic features more than his acting. Either way, this movie certainly proved Hayworth and Ford were a screen team for the ages.

Ronnie Rating:

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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