The story sounds like a winner: A fan dancer played by Carole Lombard officially adopts an Apple Annie-esque Robson as a Mother’s Day publicity stunt.
Sounds racy, no?
However, despite uniformly excellent performances from a cast that also includes Roger Pryor, Walter Connolly, Arthur Hohl and Raymond Walburn, Lady by Choice just doesn’t have much zip.
In the past I’ve mentioned that it is sometimes hard to notice any interference from the Production Code Administration (P.C.A.) on some releases just after enforcement of the Code had begun during the second half of 1934. That’s not the case here though. Lady by Choice would have had a lot more personality had it come along in the spring of 1934 rather than the fall.
You could make a case that Lombard’s fan dancer, Georgia “Alabam” Lee, is a protest against the Production Code by virtue of her profession. When she appears in Judge Daly’s (Connolly) court at the start of Lady by Choice she is fined a hundred dollars and given a one-year suspended sentence for violating the morals code. But as we get to know the Alabam character better she doesn't seem so much a protest as she does a bellwether signaling the constrained quality of Lady by Choice.
Despite boasting a beautiful young fan dancer and a worldly old alcoholic as its lead characters, Lady by Choice is a wholly moral tale. It is family fare.
But so was Capra’s film version of Runyon’s Lady for a Day. In that earlier movie May Robson starred as Apple Annie, a less restrained and more human picture of Depression era desperation than her Patsy Patterson of Lady by Choice. When Patsy is drunk she gets into a bar fight; When Apple Annie is on the sauce she has an emotional meltdown that leads an otherwise thick-skinned professional gambler to show his soft side and help the old lady out of a jam. There is no Dave the Dude type in Lady by Choice. The most morally objectionable character in the follow-up movie is Alabam’s manager, Kendall (Arthur Hohl), who Patsy eventually outs as a crook.
Whereas most of the key underworld and underprivileged figures of Lady for a Day revealed themselves to be of several shades, Lady by Choice is purely black and white.
Despite its limitations Lady by Choice remains entertaining and strong performances from the cast allow us to forgive what emerges as a routine story.
While in the past I’ve taken a few jabs at the legendary Carole Lombard, my problems are typically with her screwball comedies. Of course, those are some of her most popular films, and I realize I’m in the minority opinion when it comes to them. The comedy in Lady by Choice is largely left to Robson and supporting characters with Lombard’s laughs far more subdued than the over-the-top antics that bug me in otherwise beloved titles such as Twentieth Century or My Man Godfrey. The timing of Lady by Choice in coming soon after the beginning of Production Code enforcement leaves her character Alabam mostly sexless. Lombard instead embarks on a somewhat storybook romance with the Roger Pryor character.
For a movie about a fan dancer, Lady by Choice doesn’t bring much sex appeal to the table. Lombard’s is tempered and Pryor has none, so we get an amiable but passionless romance. The characters are likable and worth rooting for, though Alabam’s motives are sometimes confusing. There’s little doubt she first eyes Johnny Mills with gold-digger intentions and she eventually makes it clear that she’s put that pursuit aside for true love, but the change is so sudden and total that it almost feels like there is a scene or two missing. I liked this in one way, as I wasn’t quite sure what Alabam was thinking, but I’m not sure anyone associated with the movie did either.
Lombard’s leading man Roger Pryor had previously played opposite Mae West in his best remembered film appearance, Belle of the Nineties (1934). Prior to his being recruited to Hollywood, Pryor had been very successful on Broadway from the late 1920s, where he appeared in long running shows such as The Royal Family, Up Pops the Devil, Apron Strings and Blessed Event. After a somewhat high profile beginning in Hollywood, Pryor was soon relegated to “B” movie leads, which he played competently through the late 1940s.
His father, Arthur Pryor, had been a composer and had earned his own share of fame as John Phillip Sousa’s trombonist. The elder Pryor claimed to play over 10,000 solos with Sousa before founding his own successful band. A younger son, Arthur, Jr. also became a composer and, eventually, so too did Roger Pryor. In the late 1930s Pryor became leader of a swing band in addition to his movie duties. This period also saw Pryor in the midst of his highest profile marriage, to movie actress Ann Sothern, a union which lasted from 1936 through their 1943 divorce. In 1947 Pryor left show business to embark on a career as an advertising executive, which lasted about fifteen years. Roger Pryor died of a heart attack in 1974 at age 72.
In Lady by Choice Pryor’s Johnny Mills has no negative character traits. Johnny is a lawyer who inherits millions from his father. Before his father had died he made Johnny promise to look after the woman who had been the true love of his life, Patsy. (There are awkward mentions of Johnny's mother near the end of the movie, that I think were inserted so viewers could not jump to the conclusion that Patsy was his mother. While this doesn't totally rule out adultery between Johnny's father and Patsy, it does imply that Johnny was born to a married couple.) Johnny helps as much as Patsy will allow, which falls just short of a hand-out. Johnny is known and respected by Judge Daly (Connolly), an equally respectable character, and likely would live a life entirely escaping drama had he not fallen in love with fan dancer Alabam. But even in such a potentially complicated romance the level-headed Johnny remains in control and leaves very little doubt of an eventually happy ending without any serious roadblocks along the way.
Since Pryor is straddled with such a vanilla character most of the best interactions in the movie come between Robson and Lombard. As they are the top billed stars in Lady by Choice this is as anticipated. While there is eventually friction between the two women it is short-lived and easy to see through. There is some potential for fireworks from the cold idea of Lombard’s Alabam adopting Patsy purely as a publicity stunt, but that possibility is extinguished when the two women immediately become best pals. This easy friendship quickly reforms our rummy and our fan dancer and makes Lady by Choice feel more like a Faith Baldwin story than something out of Damon Runyon's world.
The movie was well received in late 1934 and something of a darling with critics. Early reports also had it doing strong business at the box office. Most reviews noted that it was similar to Lady for a Day but congratulated Lady by Choice for not being a cheap knock-off but actually offering something original in the Lombard-Robson relationship.
Photoplay magazine named it one of their “Best Pictures of the Month” in their December 1934 issue, alongside titles including Judge Priest with Will Rogers and The Gay Divorcee with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Additionally, the magazine named Robson among its best performers that same month.
Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times wrote, “Ordinarily these copies are sad affairs, lacking in the very qualities that made for the success of the original. It is a pleasant surprise, then, to be able to report that Lady by Choice is an exception.”
Lady by Choice lacks in conflict and color but is propped up by an otherwise enjoyable story that is especially well acted. Even as a knock-off it’s not fair to compare it to entirely different movie, but Lady for a Day made May Robson a top Hollywood star. If that earlier movie did not exist then Lady by Choice would not have been strong enough to turn the same trick.
Since there was a Lady for a Day, Lady by Choice will still be most enjoyed by those who love Robson’s Apple Annie and want a bit more of her in that type of role. The movie won’t let down Carole Lombard completists either as their favorite gives an extremely competent performance.
Lady by Choice is available on DVD as a TCM exclusive in a three-movie Carole Lombard set titled “In the Thirties.” In addition to Lady by Choice the set includes No More Orchids (1932) and Brief Moment (1933). My copy and the accompanying screen captures come from a past showing on TCM that I recorded.