Monday, January 10, 2011

Reeling Backward: "My Favorite Wife" (1940)

I admit I did not much care for "My Favorite Wife," and it may not even be the movie's fault.

I read the description of the plot -- a woman is shipwrecked on an island for seven years and returns home to find her husband remarried -- and thought this 1940 screwball comedy starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant would be more of a dramatic film along the lines of "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks. How neat to see the gender roles reversed, I thought, with the woman persevering to survive and the man having emotionally moved on.

Alas, it's more of a slamming-door farce than anything even remotely serious. Grant and Dunne are a likable pair, making cooing eyes and sniping at each other lovingly. But it's one of those movies whose entire plot rests on the conceit of people not being able to tell the unpleasant truth. One uncomfortable moment and the entire situation is resolved, but no, our protagonists must continue the charade on and on -- otherwise there wouldn't be a movie.

Nowadays we would call this the purview of a low-rent TV sitcom. Watching it play out 70 years earlier with top-flight stars doesn't make it any more palatable.

The film was actually based on a tragic poem by Lord Tennyson, "Enoch Arden," from which Grant's character takes his name. It's directed by Garson Kanin from a screenplay by Leo McCarey, which actually got an Oscar nomination, if you can believe it. "Wife" also got Academy nods for musical score and art direction.

The story opens with Nick Arden (Grant), who's an attorney, appearing in court to have his wife Ellen (Dunne) declared legally dead after being lost at sea seven years earlier. Moments after the cantankerous old judge (Granville Bates) rules her dead, Nick has him preside over his marriage to Bianca, an uncouth woman played by Gail Patrick, who actually bears a striking resemblance to Dunne.

The biggest hole in the story is why Nick wants to marry Bianca. She has no real affinity with his two children, Nick's mother doesn't care for her, and even he later admits he never really loved her. It's never made clear why he's in such a hurry to get hitched, and the movie suffers for it.

Hours after Nick is remarried, Ellen is dropped off at their home by a truck driver. Dressed in sailor's garb, we're expected to believe that she was picked up off the island by a Portuguese merchant ship, and somehow she made her way from the Pacific Rim to Los Angeles without ever thinking of writing a letter, sending a telegram or making a phone call.

Long story short, Ellen trails Nick and Bianca to their honeymoon and presents herself to Nick just in time to foil the consummation of his nuptials. They resolve to tell Bianca that his first wife is alive and well ... eventually.

As I say, events keep transpiring to prevent Nick from blurbling out those words. At one point Bianca even hires a psychologist to diagnose why Nick seems so uninterested in his new bride, and there's a goofy scene where the doc comes across Nick posing with some of Ellen's clothes. The subtext, of course, being that he's homosexual.

To add to the mix, it turns out Ellen was not alone on the island all those years, but had a fellow castaway, Stephen Burkett. Although they remained chaste, Nick is understandably suspicious -- especially when he tracks Burkett down and discovers him to be a tall, handsome athlete played by Randolph Scott. (After observing him do an acrobatic leap into a country club swimming pool, and woman asks Nick if the diver is Johnny Weismuller, best known for playing Tarzan.)

The rest of the movie is a blase mix of suspicion, one-upmanship between Nick and Burkett and pretend feuding between Nick and Ellen, with their eventual reconciliation never in doubt.

My biggest regret about seeing "My Favorite Wife" is that we never see Ellen (and Burkett) on the island. She just shows up rescued, and without even the benefit of a suntan. Maybe I'd have liked it more if the film wasn't so different from my expectations ... but I expect not. It's a mid-century comedy star vehicle, and not a very good one.

1.5 stars out of four

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