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The stakes were high and so was the star power in A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966). Director Fielder Cook, known mostly for his TV work (Patterns (1956), the 1966 Emmy Award-winning version of Brigadoon), plays out a hand of aces in only his second feature outing, with a cast that includes Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Joanne Woodward, Charles Bickford and Burgess Meredith. And that's just to start. The lucky draw runs deep, with a second-to-none supporting cast of trump cards like Paul Ford as the local banker and Kevin McCarthy as a love-struck poker player.
Fielder also directed the original teleplay, Big Deal in Laredo (1963), on which A Big Hand for the Little Lady was based. The teleplay (along with the later big-screen adaptation) was penned by Sidney Carroll for the DuPont Show of the Week. Both Carroll and Fielder received Emmy nominations for their hand in Big Deal in Laredo, along with another familiar name - Walter Matthau. Matthau was nominated for an Emmy for Best Single Performance by an Actor (presumably for the role Henry Fonda would take to the big screen), but sadly, no record of this live performance exists. As Jason Robards later said it, television in those days was "like a one-night stand."
But perhaps the biggest star of A Big Hand for the Little Lady is the poker game itself. While there are no violent gun battles in this Western, the card game at the center of the film is just as suspenseful as a shootout. Of course this is no ordinary poker hand. It's a sure winner - so big that it causes one player to have a heart attack and another to secure a bank loan. Fielder captures the tension of the game masterfully, every draw a life or death situation that leaves the audience holding its breath. And that's no small feat considering that most of the movie takes place in the back room of a saloon, without an outlaw or a gunfight in sight. But A Big Hand for the Little Lady is a comedy at heart. The surprise ending lets us in on the joke and makes a second viewing of the movie even more amusing.
Movie buffs will want to keep a sharp lookout for silent screen veteran Chester Conklin, who appeared with Charlie Chaplin in many of his Keystone comedies, not to mention his role in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). Conklin makes his last film appearance here, billed in the credits as simply "Old Man in Saloon" (whose name just happens to be Chester). And there's a cameo by Mae Clarke, a leading lady in the '30s. Clarke's most memorable role was probably opposite James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931). She's the gangster's moll who receives the old grapefruit in the face courtesy of Cagney. Clarke went on to play the bride of Frankenstein (1931) opposite Colin Clive and to co-star in several other 1931 successes like Waterloo Bridge and The Front Page. But Clarke's career fizzled fast, reducing the actress to bit parts, walk-ons and B movies. Her final leading role came in King of the Rocket Men (1949). In A Big Hand for the Little Lady, look fast and you might recognize Clarke, in her second-to-last film appearance, as Mrs. Craig, the woman at the bank window.
Producer/Director: Fielder Cook
Screenplay: Sidney Carroll
Production Design: Robert Emmet Smith
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Film Editing: George Rohrs
Original Music: David Raksin
Principal Cast: Henry Fonda (Meredith), Joanne Woodward (Mary), Jason Robards, Jr. (Henry Drummond), Charles Bickford (Benson Tropp), Burgess Meredith (Doc Scully), Paul Ford (C.P. Ballinger), Kevin McCarthy (Otto Habershaw), Robert Middleton (Dennis Wilcox).
By Stephanie Thames