Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Stubs – My Favorite Wife

My Favorite Wife (1940) Starring: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Gail Patrick. Directed by Garson Kanin. Screenplay by Samuel Spewack and Bella Spewack. Story by Samuel Spewack and Bella Spewack, Leo McCarey.  Run Time: 88 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Screwball Comedy, Christmas

Okay, sneaking this in as a Christmas movie is a real stretch, but in our tour of drive-by Christmas films, none drives by it faster than My Favorite Wife. In this movie, Christmas isn’t really a backdrop against which the story takes place. But Santa does make an appearance, more on that later, so it qualifies.

The film opens in the courtroom where lawyer Nick Arden (Cary Grant) is asking Judge Bryson (Granville Bates) to declare his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) legally dead. Having left on a scientific expedition seven years ago, the boat Ellen was on was shipwrecked off the coast of Indonesia and witnesses saw the lifeboat she was in sink as well. After reviewing Arden’s disposition, the Judge concurs that all legal stipulations have been met for Ellen to be declared dead. And no sooner had that declaration been made, then Nick marries Bianca Bates (Gail Patrick).

After having his first wife declared legally dead, Nick Arden
(Cary Grant) has the judge marry him to Bianca (Gail Patrick).

But who should return on that day, but Ellen. After spending seven years on a deserted island, Ellen was rescued by a Portuguese freighter that was 200 miles off course. Arriving back at their house, Ellen realizes that she is a stranger to her own children, Tim (Scotty Beckett) and Cinch (Mary Lou Harrington), who only remember that their mother drowned. But her mother-in-law (Ann Shoemaker) definitely remembers Ellen and tells her about Nick’s marriage. Ma tells her that they had left for their honeymoon in Yosemite at the same lodge where Nick and Ellen had spent their honeymoon. Ma is not a big fan of Bianca’s as it turns out.

Ellen arrives ahead of the couple since Nick had some business to attend to on the way. Nick and Bianca check-in and Nick makes sure not to get Suite A, since that’s the one he shared with Ellen. But as the elevator doors close, Nick sees Ellen and can't believe his eyes.

Nick and Bianca check in to their honeymoon suite.

Making a feeble excuse to get back downstairs, Nick tells Bianca that he needs a shave. He is initially elated to see Ellen and kisses her. The bartender informs them that there are laws against kissing in a bar, so Nick gets Ellen a room, their old Suite A. The hotel clerk (Donald MacBride) does his best to be accommodating even though this is highly unusual, especially for 1940.

Nick checks Ellen into the same hotel.

In her room, Ellen and Nick talk things out. Nick admits to her that he never really loved Bianca, whom he met on the boat on the way back from searching for Ellen. But how to break the news to Bianca? By now, Bianca is worried and frustrated by her disappearing bridegroom and has him paged throughout the lodge. When the hotel clerk finds him in Ellen’s room, he practically forces him to confront his wife. But even then Nick isn’t sure what to say, going down to the lobby to work on his explanation. Even then, he can’t bring himself to tell Bianca that she’s a lame duck wife and puts off the unpleasant business.

Instead, Nick thinks of a variety of excuses why he must leave their honeymoon suite and not behave as a bridegroom should, he avoids consummating their marriage. Bianca is certain that there is something wrong with Nick, especially when they return home and he refuses to tell Tim and Chinch that Bianca is their new stepmother.

Ellen, with Ma’s support, decides to torment Nick and masquerades as a friend of the family from the South. After Bianca goes to bed with a headache and calls her mother to complain about Nick's erratic behavior, Nick receives a late-night visit from an insurance investigator (Hugh O’Connell) representing the company which paid Ellen's life insurance policy. He mentions to Nick a rumor that Ellen was not alone on the island, but had the company of a Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott) and that according to crew members of the Portuguese freighter, the two called each other "Adam" and "Eve".

Nick confronts Ellen about the rumor and the man she had neglected to mention. She tells Nick that Stephen was a harmless old man. But Nick is still crazy with jealousy and decides to find Stephen. Ellen has told him Stephen would be residing at the Y.M.C.A., but Nick finds him staying at the Pacific Club instead. And Stephen turns out to be virile, handsome and very athletic. Meanwhile, not knowing that Nick has located Stephen, Ellen finds a mousy shoe salesman (Chester Clute) and tries to pass him off to Nick as her island companion.

Ellen tries to pass off a mousy shoe salesman (Chester Clute) as Stephen.

Pretending not to suspect anything, Nick takes Ellen out to lunch at the Pacific Club, where he and Stephen finally meet face-to-face. The embarrassed Ellen takes an unintended plunge into the club's pool, requiring Nick to go home and get some clothes for her.

Nick finally meets Stephen, the man his wife spent seven years alone with on a desert island.

But when Nick gets home, he finds that Bianca, who has become frustrated by Nick’s odd behavior, has consulted a psychiatrist, Dr. Kohlmar (Pedro de Cordoba), in hopes he can straighten Nick out. But just when the befuddled Nick is trying to explain his actions to Bianca and Dr. Kohlmar, the police arrive and arrest him for bigamy.

Ellen brings in a psychiatrist, Dr, Kohlmar (Pedro de Cordoba)
in an attempt to figure out what's going on with Nick.

In court, Nick's domestic conundrum is finally exposed as he, Bianca, Ellen, and Stephen try to sort out the complicated details of the case to Judge Bryson, the same judge who had Ellen declared legally dead and also married Nick and Bianca. After various unsatisfactory explanations are offered, the judge finally grants Bianca an annulment, and she happily leaves after socking Nick. The judge, who wants to fine Ellen for contempt of court, can’t because she’s legally dead. He reverses his former decision but then decides to take the matter into consideration.

Nick tries to explain what happened to Judge Bryson.

With all of the strain of the last few days, Nick declares that he needs time to think. Stephen, who is in love with her after their seven years together, asks her to marry him and return with him to the island, but she still loves Nick. This leaves Stephen to return to the island alone.

But Ellen is upset by her husband's lack of commitment and decides to go away, with the children, and think as well. Ellen can’t legally drive, so Nick takes Ellen and the children, who still do not know that she is their real mother, to their old mountain cabin. The plan is for him to leave, but he makes up several excuses, telling Ellen the road is closed and he is forced to spend the night in the cabin.

Cinch (Mary Lou Harrington) and Tim (Scotty Beckett) sandwich their mom.

After the children happily reveal that they know Ellen is their mother, and after Ma Arden telephones Ellen to say that the judge has declared her legally alive and her marriage is intact, Ellen tells Nick he’ll have to sleep in the attic.

The attic is not comfortable and Nick makes several attempts to sleep in Ellen's bedroom (they have separate beds). Finally, she tells him to take a sixty-day cruise to think these over, which would bring him back home in time for Christmas.

Nick goes back up the attic. After hearing a considerable noise, Ellen is soon surprised when Nick enters the room in a Santa Claus suit and wishes her a Merry Christmas. The two obviously reconcile.

Cary Grant does dress up as Santa.

There is so much to like about My Favorite Wife, it is hard to know where to begin. The more I find out about Garson Kanin’s work in Hollywood, the bigger fan I become. Kanin took over the film after the original director, Leo McCarey was involved in a near-fatal car accident.  A director and writer, sometimes collaborating with his wife Ruth Gordon, he started out on stage and he moved back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway for much of his career.

His first film to direct was A Man to Remember (1938); he was 26 at the time. He would go on to direct Bachelor Mother (1939) and after My Favorite Wife, Tom, Dick and Harry (1941). He was also an accomplished screenwriter, penning two Spencer Tracy – Katherine Hepburn films: Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), both with Ruth Gordon.

I don’t remember if Cary Grant ever made a bad film. Perhaps he did, but I haven’t seen it. As an actor, Grant was adept at playing comedy as well as drama. He seems to have a looseness about him as an actor that allows him to go with the flow of the film. Maybe one of the best looking men to be ever captured on film, he has a really good comedic sense, as when Nick first spies Ellen on his way up the elevator to his honeymoon suite.

Cary Grant was a handsome man with a great comedic sense.

I’ve only seen Irene Dunne in a few films, The Awful Truth (1937), in which she was also teamed in a screwball comedy with Cary Grant; My Favorite Wife and A Guy Named Joe (1943). The shame seems to be on me. So far of the three, she’s been good in all of them, though I’ll admit it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen A Guy Named Joe.

Irene Dunne received top billing in My Favorite Wife.

Randolph Scott is perhaps best known for the many Westerns he made over his career, something like 60 of them. Scott, a very versatile actor, appears in numerous genres including crime dramas, comedies, war films, adventure films and even a few horror films. He worked with several of the finest directors including Rouben Mamoulian, Michael Curtiz, King Vidor, Fritz Lang and Sam Peckinpah. Scott also made several films with some directors, most notably seven westerns with Budd Boetticher.

Randolph Scott is perhaps best known for Westerns, but he appeared in a variety of genres.

I’d be remiss not to mention rumors that swirled around Hollywood about Scott and Grant’s homosexuality. They lived together off and on for about ten years. Notorious tightwads, some say the two were trying to cut down on their expenses, but rumors flew around about a love affair between the two. Both men denied the rumors and there are witnesses on both sides of the issue yes and no. Grant is supposed to have thrown his weight around to get Scott hired on for My Favorite Wife. I’m not taking sides in the debate; I’m just saying the rumors existed.

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant at home.

I don’t know much about Gail Patrick. Her part in My Favorite Wife was apparently a standard role for her. She oftentimes played the leading ladies main rival, in such films as My Man Godfrey (1936), Stage Door (1937) and Dangerous to Know (1938). I’m not sure if My Favorite Wife really showcases her talent or not as of the four main characters she makes the least impression. Her part could have been played by practically any actress.

The person who steals every scene he’s in is Granville Bates as the slightly befuddled but demands to be taken seriously, Judge Bryson. I swear Grant looks like he’s about to burst out laughing during their scenes together. His part in My Favorite Wife is one of his most memorable character roles and regrettably also one of his last, as he died the same year as it was released, 1940 at the age of 58.

The story is a little out there, especially for the time, but you have to admit it's original. The Academy nominated it for Best Story (back when they had such an award), Best Score and Best Art Direction. The film was remade by Fox in 1962, or at least attempted to be remade as Something's Got to Give, a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe directed by George Cukor. But her lateness to the set led to her being fired. Filming was abandoned when Monroe's co-star, Dean Martin, backed out. But a good story is hard to find and Fox went ahead with the remake, but with Doris Day, James Garner and Polly Bergen as the stars of Move Over, Darling (1963).

Overall, I would recommend My Favorite Wife. The film is funny and well worth watching. Maybe it’s not really much of a Christmas movie, but its gift of comedy is one you’ll want to open more than once.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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