In the beginning there were two of them, Richard Quine and Blake Edwards. They were a scriptwriting team and Quine was something of a mentor for Edwards. They wrote at least ten films together, usually directed by Quine, but eventually they went their separate ways and Edwards’s star rose much higher than Quine’s, which is not unfair. Another member of the Edwards/Quine team was Jack Lemmon, of whom it might be said that Quine groomed him to become the star he would eventually turn in to. Lemmon had played his first film role in George Cukor’s delightful It Should Happen to You (1954) and the following year he teamed up with Quine/Edwards on My Sister Eileen. Quine then directed him in Operation Mad Ball (1957), Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and then the film under special consideration in this article, It Happened to Jane (1959). That year, while Quine continued to work with Lemmon on a couple of films, their partnership had been eclipsed by Lemmon’s work with Billy Wilder. Maybe it was to be Quine’s lot, eclipsed by greater artists. But Quine was also a fine filmmaker, not least during his years at Columbia in the 1950s. It might also be argued that his best films are those on which he did not work with Edwards. In any event it is high time for Quine to be explored and celebrated in his own right to a greater extent than has been the case so far.
While Quine occasionally made thrillers, he was primarily doing comedy or light drama, and It Happened to Jane is such a film. But it is more accurately described as a perky lesson in civic participation and local democracy, set in a small town in Maine called Cape Ann (although shot in Chester, Connecticut).Quine was also its producer and the screenplay was written by Norman Katkov, whose other credits are for individual episodes of a wide variety of TV-series and the film Viva Knievel! (Gordon Douglas 1977). Jane of the title is Jane Osgood, played by Doris Day, who runs a small business raising and selling lobsters. She is a widow with two young children, and it is basically just the three of them who run the business. There are two main storylines in the film. One concerns Jane’s battle against a railway tycoon whose cost-cutting has led to her lobsters not reaching her customers on time. The other concerns a lawyer called George Denham, played by Lemmon, who is something of a professional failure and also in love with Jane. While she takes the battle to New York he stays in Maine looking after her children. He is also a boy scout, and very kind and loyal but also a pushover, and he clearly feels emasculated. This is a woman’s film, or so it seems up to a point. While George is indecisive and wears an apron in the kitchen while Jane is strong-willed and a fighter, he changes during the film and towards the end becomes a new man, whereas Jane does not change.
The two best scenes in It Happened to Jane are set in the kitchen of her home. Her house is not shown in its entirety, only the living room and the kitchen, which is below the living room, but they inhabit these spaces with a wonderful ease and spontaneity. In the first scene Jane and George have a sweet conversation, and it becomes clear that he loves her but feels intimidated by her late husband. In the second they have an unpleasant conversation, and a turning point in George’s life. Having looked after her children and cooked for them for two days, his housewife moment in the apron, while she is in New York wining and dining with an attractive journalist, he now snaps, which unfortunately leads him, because of his frustration and jealousy, to stop just one word short of calling her a slut or whore. She asks him to leave, not so much upset as sad that he has sunk so low.
This is where the gender politics of the film mesh with the wider politics. Jane’s fight against the railroad, or in particular its boss Harry Foster Malone, played by another Quine regular, Ernie Kovacs, is not just her against him, but the people against the faceless capitalism of the big corporations and their lawyers. The railway is merciless and Jane’s cause is taken up across the United States and becomes a media sensation. A radio reporter even tries to make the case that her spirited fight will show those behind the Iron Curtain what real democracy looks like. And it is a very particular form of democracy because in Cape Ann, where the film is set, everybody participate and everybody votes on all important issues. There are also frequent historical references and stories, to highlight that Jane’s fight is keeping an old American tradition alive and that her fight is good for the whole community, which eventually swings behind her. So in a way the film is nostalgic, as Jane is seen as defending something that has been lost and needs to be taken back, such as small-scale capitalism and local democracy. Trains are also invoked in this battle of ideas. The railway corporation is using modern, fast trains, but the locals use an old steam train called Old 97, a «sister» of which once transported the former president Teddy Roosevelt to Boston, or so the old engineer Otis claims.
The man who leads the city council, called first selectman in the New England parlance, is a Republican, and has been one for a long time. Lemmon’s character George Denham, a Democrat, is running for that position and has, unsuccessfully, done so for several years. But now, after his humiliation at Jane’s home and his burst of anger in the kitchen, he gives a rousing speech at a community meeting, defending her and lambasting the selfishness and pettiness of the town, and then he comes up with a plan to save Jane's business. He does it partly for this is what he really believes but also because he feels guilty, as he should, for what he said to Jane before. His personal turning point becomes a political turning point. And George is rewarded by finally being elected first selectman. He has toughed up, and then, in order to help Jane get her lobsters out in time, he is shovelling coal on the Old 97 to keep the steam engine going, using his muscles for a change. He has now become «a man». But he is still not all there. It is still Jane who has to make the marriage proposal for them, although she does it by saying that «I need a man to take care of me.» It is a peculiar line because the whole film has clearly said the opposite, but there it is.
So the gender politics are unfortunately old-fashioned, but the general politics are refreshingly old-fashioned, a sort of left-wing, inclusive and progressive populism. It Happened to Jane has been compared to the films of Frank Capra but that is not wholly appropriate. For one thing Capra is usually about a single person whereas this film is more community focused. If there is a film historic reference point it is rather the British Ealing Studios that feels appropriate, both in its tone and in its community spirit. The strong sense of local colour of the film is also more in keeping with Ealing than Capra and a big part of the appeal of It Happened to Jane comes from its vividly captured locations and sense of space. Quine has been celebrated for his interiors and sense of architecture but this is more of an outdoors film, Jane's kitchen notwithstanding, and this also adds to the centrality of the community. (This has been part of George’s weakness the first two thirds of the film, he functions much better in the domestic space than in the public.)
The character of Malone, the railway tycoon, is an internal joke as he is modelled on the late boss of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, in appearance and behaviour. Malone is a mean man, but with an obvious love for the railway business. He even sleeps in a bedroom made out to look like a sleeping car. His stubbornness and maliciousness leads his associates to quit, one after another, and finally he has to fly out to Maine in person and engaged with Jane. He does not stand a chance and finally gives in. When George has not the strength to carry on shovelling coal Malone takes over. Here the film becomes positively utopian, especially in the very the end when Malone buys a new fire engine for Cape Ann. This does not appear out of the blue, there has been a softening up of Malone, it seems as if his old love of the railway has rekindled something good within him. Up until then there had been a Trumpian dimension to Malone but it is completely gone here when he becomes human. However, the very last scene, of the townspeople running after Malone to thank him for the engine has an eerie resemblance to the scene in Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) when the alien pods chase the film's heroic couple down that small town's main street.
To some extent the two films, It Happened to Jane and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, show the breadth and vitality of American cinema at the time, from small town community as a force for good to small town community as a mortal threat, a stifling conformity. Which take is the more radical is not obvious but they make for an interesting double feature.
In Quine's own oeuvre It Happened to Jane has a partner in The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) with Judy Holliday and Paul Douglas, another comedy about a woman battling a big corporation. But good as it is, it lacks the community and location of It Happened to Jane. Quine’s next film would take on a much bigger community, that of Hong Kong and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). That too is a fine film.