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Unfinished Business (1941)

In a 1941 film, you’d expect any female character who succumbed to a playboy’s advances to pay dearly for her fall from grace. But an Irene Dunne character was not just any female character, and working with director-producer Gregory La Cava, the actress made her debauched innocent so pure at heart audiences couldn’t help but root for her.

Here, Dunne plays a small-town choir singer who has devoted her life to raising her younger sister. When the girl marries, Dunne takes off for New York to pursue her dream of singing in the opera. She meets wealthy cad Preston Foster on the train and, not knowing he’s taking part in a bet, lets him seduce her. Of course, he abandons her once the train reaches New York and, even worse, she learns she’ll never cut it as a singer. Instead, she winds up as a singing switchboard operator at a nightclub where she meets and accidentally marries a wealthy drunk (Robert Montgomery), who turns out to be Foster’s brother.

In any other hands, Unfinished Business would be a maudlin mess. But La Cava has such a deft comic touch, he keeps the whole thing floating through a series of witty lines and comic situations like Dunne’s audition to sing a jingle at the nightclub. And though Dunne has her heartbroken moments, she and Montgomery are so skilled at sophisticated comedy that what could have been as ridiculous as East Lynne turns into a screwball romp.

d. Gregory La Cava, 96 minutes, 35mm

Courtesy of Universal Pictures