' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: A Big Hand For The Little Lady

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: A Big Hand For The Little Lady

You can't claim you didn't see it coming. It's a movie about a gargantuan poker game and the movie is called "A Big Hand For The Little Lady." So the Little Lady's gotta have, well, a Big Hand. Right? Sure. Of course. But how big is the hand? How does she acquire the hand? What happens with the hand? And just who is this Little Lady? And, of course, if Bret Maverick taught us anything......woah! Let's hold the horses! First things first!


The 1966 film opens with several extravagantly rich gentlemen bowing out on their measly committments, nonsense like a daughter's wedding or closing arguments of a court trial, to make a poker tournament in the back room of a saloon in Laredo that is so high stakes it makes the World Series Of Poker on ESPN8 (The Ocho) look like a drunken game of farkle (don't ask) at my friend Matt's cabin. It revs up. Cattle baron Henry Drummond (Jason Robards) goes up early. But complications, as they must, arise.

A seemingly well-to-do family of three arrives at the saloon, desperate for a place to stay. They are on their way to a new life in San Antonio but a wagon wheel has broken. The well-dressed father Meredith (Henry Fonda) quickly realizes a poker game is underway. He asks his gentle wife Mary (Joanne Woodward) if he can "just watch." After much ado she gives in and says yes. This seems a bad idea since it seems Meredith is a reformed gambling addict. Putting him in a room with a poker game going on is akin to Cosmo Kramer, reformed gambling addict, sitting next to Earl Hafler at the JFK Airport Diplomat's Club. Money's gonna get lost.

Mary goes off to repair the wagon wheel while Meredith and his finely dressed son are admitted entrance to watch the game by Otto Habershaw (Kevin McCarthy), a suave lawyer who appears to be playing an angle. Sure enough, within about 27 seconds Meredith has run up to his room, grabbed his family's life savings and wagered it all on what he seems to feel is the poker hand of a lifetime.

The esteemed Fonda is a marvel as a wayward junkie returning to his ways, sitting at the table with those big eyes, his face marked with uneasy sweat, his nervous laugh every time his fellow gamblers take a crack at him, desperately clinging to his cards, sitting his son down on top of the bar and ordering him a sasparilla in a "beer glass" so he can flee to grab more money he's probably going to lose. This isn't exactly......comfortable. And that says something about Fonda because the movie has mostly light-hearted tone and he somehow nestles himself right in there between funny and the "My God, this is hard to watch." Eventually, Mary returns to discover what he has done. He makes the requisite plea. I didn't lose the money, he intones, it's an investment! With cards like these......then he collapses. It's his heart. The doctor is called in. He takes Meredith away. It looks as if he'll surivive but......the game, the money. Despite knowing nothing of poker, Mary steps in. Otto gives her an explanation. She needs more money to stay in the game. But she has no more money. And how will she win even if she gets it?


It's a bold movie that switches main characters midstream, especially when Henry Fonda was the main character, but Joanne Woodward is more than up to the task, serving us a rock-hard innocent who stands up to these boorish men by being a lady.

Can you figure out how it ends? Yeah, you probably can. I mean, it's a card game movie. If you don't think it's trying to pull one over on you...... For awhile I wondered if maybe it wasn't trying to pull one over on us. Would that be the ruse? Was it all a majestic bluff? After all, fortune favors the bold. But the "twist" arrives right on time and it's less than stunning. And I felt cheated.

Except, in the end, in the true end, once the credits actually roll, I didn't feel cheated at all. Joanne Woodward strolls around in the brief epilogue with such classical audacity, she won me over. It was like I knew she was bluffing the whole time but she got me to unwittingly show her my cards and then she called my bluff.

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