The Jackpot

Talkie of the Week: The Jackpot

USA 1950, 85 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox. Director: Walter Lang, Written by: Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Based on the article “The Jackpot” by John McNulty in The New Yorker about a real radio program jackpot winner in Rhode Island in 1948. Cast: James Stewart, Barbara Hale, James Gleason, Fred Clark, Alan Mawbray, Patricia Medina, Natalie Wood, Tommy Rettig, Robert Gist, Lyle Talbot

Plot summary: Bill and Amy Lawrence live their quiet little, Midwestern middle-class life in a nice suburban house with two kids. Then Bill wins the grand prize on a popular radio show and his entire life is turned upside down.

Review: The Jackpot is a comedy set and shot in 1950. Radio was THE big thing. Game shows, commercials, whodunits – everything later projected on TV, you name it, it all happened on radio before. That’s what the film so beautifully picks up on from a contemporary point of view. It adds a sense of nostalgia to it, a longing for those quality radio programs I also grew up with, the memory of campfire moments with the family following bewitching voices on the radio.

On a more general note, this film is about the promise of an exciting life that comes with a jackpot win. Only that this jackpot is not monetary but comes in material values: household equipment, a pony, jewelry, an interior decorator, food supplies and much much more. Some of it useful, most of it not so much. A middle-class consumer’s dream, delivered all at once to stir up a lot of trouble in Bill Lawrence’s life.

The problems Bill and his wife are facing after being lucky winners still work today, the initial but short-lived euphoria, the private turmoil and the sit-com elements. James Stewart was brilliantly cast as Bill Lawrence who may have been a little at odds with his all too normal life before, but who actually enjoys nothing more than his routine and his loving family. Barbara Hale was an equally genius casting addition. Her Amy Lawrence is a joy to watch: from the committed, effervescent housewife and mother to a jealous, unnerved wife who’s considering divorce. Lovely sidekicks are their children played by Natalie Wood and Tommy Rettig, and an overall believable cast.

The end is not all that surprising but adds to the charm of this entertaining and highly enjoyable film. It is a definite gem for everybody who enjoys James Stewart’s work and Barbara Hale’s talents. It is a worthwhile piece of hilarity for everybody who’s not familiar with their work but who needs a good laugh, some family entertainment and a dash of late 1940s / early 1950s style.

Tidbits and side notes: According to a Chicago Tribune article / interview with Barbara Hale, “The Faithful Secretary” from 1993, Barbara was pregnant with her second child, son William Katt, during the shooting of The Jackpot.

Screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron were nominated for a WGA award for this film.

Available on VHS, likely to be released on DVD.

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