I find it hard to think of Carole Lombard as anything but sweet. She was gorgeous and at times sexy, but never convincingly conveyed the scandalously provocative women she is meant to embody in Lady by Choice. Even the poster for this movie makes Lombard look more like Jean Harlow than herself.
Lombard is fan dancer Alabam Lee who at the film’s start is tickled pink by the sass an old woman gives Judge Daly (Walter Connolly) when asked about her drunk and disorderly charges. Alabam is in the courtroom waiting for her own sentence for the illegal dancing she does. Not long after, looking to boost her image, Alabam’s manager arranges for the woman to adopt a mother on mother’s day. When visiting a rest home, who should Alabam find, but that old woman, Patsy (May Robson). Once permanently settled in this young woman’s life, Patsy starts to look out for Alabam’s interests and that includes not only lying about some large gambling profits she will share (calling it an inheritance) but she reveals that the dancer’s manager Front O’Malley (Raymond Walburn) has been cheating her out of the appropriate share of her dancer salary. Booting him to the curb, Patsy takes over as Alabam’s manager and tries to turn her into a legitimate singer/dancer.
Along the way, Alabam gets friendly with Johnny Mills (Roger Pryor), who has always looked out for Patsy because his deceased father was in love with her. Finding she is about to be broke, Alabam thinks marrying this wealthy man might be a good plan, but her emotions get the best of her and money no longer sounds like the future she wants.
It is hard to know to whom the title Lady by Choice refers. Both Patsy and Alabam are tramps of a sort at the film’s start and are transformed either by money or by affection. May Robson is almost unbelievable in her part only because she makes such a stark transition from a down-and-out drunkard looking out for her own best interests to a motherly figure who wants only to protect Alabam. Watching her, I always have the sneaking suspicion she has some ulterior motive or will abscond with Alabam’s jewelry or other valuable possession. The romance played by Lombard and Pryor is much easier to swallow. The sweet Lombard we all know comes shining through as she makes her beau promise to be penniless if they are to marry. Pryor also makes a nice romantic object for the Alabam character because he is not the most attractive man in Hollywood, which makes more genuine his girlfriend’s feelings.