Director Lee Grant and topliner Ann-Margret succeed in turning an unabashed, lightweight women’s sudser into an affable dramatic comedy about a repressed widow who rediscovers life on a raucous bus tour to Nashville.
After a loveless marriage to a frigid North Dakota lumberman (the excellent Morgan Sheppard) who seemed to love only his pet parakeets, the newly liberated widow (Ann-Margret) gingerly lets her hair down.
Leaving behind their callow hypocritical daughter (Alexandra Powers), who has married a man as dour as the dead husband, Ann-Margret nervously joins up with a bawdy band of Grand Ole Opry fans on a guided tour to the theater of country music.
George Segal, in a supporting role and beaming like a gnome, limns a gentle love interest whom the widow falls for when they’re forced to share a hotel room on the tour.
The jocular, platonic scene may not be Capra, but it is, thanks to director Grant, in the grain of “It Happened One Night.”
Sandra Reaves, Ann-Margret’s Nashville pen pal, scorches the screen in a vocal duo with the heroine during a teary-eyed, galvanizing Nashville nightclub scene in which the widow realizes her dream to be a singer, even if it’s just for one night in a tacky lounge.
The script hardly misses an emotional opportunity, including a moment when the widow is genuinely offended by brash, flamboyant roommate Brenda Vaccaro’s rash marriage to a guy she met on the bus. Here, Grant and her star pull out painful candor on part of the unworldly widow in the production’s most surprising scene.
What gives writer Merry Helm’s women’s odyssey its refreshing edge is the heroine’s Swedish origins (like Ann-Margret herself). Brought over to the U.S. at age 16 to marry a man twice her age, this middle-aged woman could be a repressed character out of an Ibsen play.
Unlike a dark Swedish soul search, though, this is essentially a comedy. One source of running humor is the heroine’s immigrant name of Ingalill, which none of the tourists can pronounce.