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Marlene Dietrich came to the attention of Hollywood with a bang when she starred in The Blue Angel (1930). For the next five years she was one of the top box-office attractions, but like most actors pigeon-holed into a role (in Dietrich's case, it was that of a femme fatale), she was unable to sustain her popularity as audience tastes changed. In 1939 she scored an unexpected hit playing the saloon-girl "Frenchy" in the comedic western Destry Rides Again opposite James Stewart and she was a hot property once again. By 1941, her popularity had proved to be temporary and she was in need of another box office smash. Dietrich chose to make The Lady Is Willing (1942), a light comedy about a diva who suddenly decides to adopt a baby. Unfortunately, it did nothing to revive her popularity.
Production began on August 11th and two weeks later on August 25th, Dietrich suffered an injury on the set. Director Mitchell Leisen remembered later, "We had only been shooting a few days when she hurt her foot. She was very late that morning because she said her astrologer, Carroll Righter, had predicted that she'd have an accident that day. She made her chauffeur drive very slowly to the studio just to be on the safe side. We started in, and she picked up one of the twins who were being used for the baby. I didn't see exactly what happened, but she was walking behind the couch and tripped on a little red wagon. As she fell, she turned herself over so she landed on her back with the baby on top of her, and in doing so, she cracked the little bone of her ankle. It must have been very painful for her, but there was never any question of recasting. She got some orthopedic shoes and we went right on. We had to trick it up a little so that the audience wouldn't see her limp. The set had a mirrored wall, so every time she had to cross the room, we'd start her out with one step on her good foot, then cut to a reaction shot of Fred [MacMurray, Dietrich's co-star] sitting on the couch with the reflection of her double in the mirror behind him crossing the room. Then we cut back to Marlene as she was arriving and she took one step into the scene with her good foot. We could always angle the camera so it wouldn't photograph itself in the mirror, but putting the lights where Marlene wanted them and not picking them up in the mirror was sometimes very hard."
Dietrich ended up in a cast but it didn't stop her in her single-minded pursuit of the happily married and notoriously faithful MacMurray. For most of her career Dietrich had made it a habit to seduce her leading men and her track record was excellent, which is why she couldn't understand how MacMurray could be immune to her charms. When she complained to Leisen about it, he said, "Listen, Marlene, Fred's so much in love with his wife Lilly, he couldn't care less about any other woman, so you lay off. Just make the picture." MacMurray later said, "I had never had anything like this happen on a picture before and it was very embarrassing."
The Lady Is Willing turned out to be an embarrassment as well. Bosley Crowther hit the nail on the head when he wrote in his April 24, 1942 New York Times review, " Why do the great minds get these notions that glamour ladies must sometimes throb with mother-love? And why, when they do, is it usual to dig up the same old yarn? Miss Dietrich was rolling along nicely as an eminently unmaternal femme fatale. Why should she suddenly go all mushy over a baby she finds on Eighth Avenue? Why should she, in her silken finery, bring it home to her sumptuous diggings, and then, in order to adopt it, should she have to make a marriage of convenience with Fred MacMurray, a highly successful baby-doctor who prefers research to pediatrics? Didn't she know any other fellows? Why should the two then fall in love, why fight and finally reconcile when the baby comes down with mastoiditis and only Dr. MacMurray can pull it through? The answers are obvious but not sufficient. Same goes for the telling of the tale. Where it should be tender and simple it is maudlin and over-dressed. And where the romantic business should be delicate it is coarse and lickerish. Miss Dietrich makes an unbelievable mama; her eyes are more for the camera than for the bairn. And Mr. MacMurray's ardor is decidedly on the casual side. Aline MacMahon and Stanley Ridges do well in supporting roles, and one-year-old David James is adorable as the tot. But he deserved a better screen mother. The lady is too willing and not sufficiently sincere."
Producers: Charles K. Feldman, Mitchell Leisen
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Albert McCleery, James Edward Grant (and story too)
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction: Rudolph Sternad, Lionel Banks (supervising art director)
Music: W. Franke Harling
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Elizabeth 'Liza' Madden), Fred MacMurray (Dr. Corey T. McBain), Aline MacMahon (Buddy), Stanley Ridges (Kenneth Hanline), Arline Judge (Frances), Roger Clark (Victor), Marietta Canty (Mary Lou), David James (baby Corey), Ruth Ford (Myrtle), Harvey Stephens (Dr. Golding), Harry Shannon (Detective Sergeant Barnes).
by Lorraine LoBianco
The AFI Catalog of Feature Films
The Internet Movie Database
The New York Times: The Lady Is Willing by Bosley Crowther, April 24, 1942
Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director by David Chierichetti