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Thursday, June 17, 2010

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE: 2 Many Spouses

After watching 5, 10... 20,000 movies, you start to realize that certain themes and stories seem to repeat themselves. This goes beyond "boy meets girl," "coming of age," or "slasher" franchise films. These old, tried, and true plots always seem to pull an audience, but there are also very specific story-lines that have been recycled and rehashed over the years, though sometimes their roots are so distant that we don't realize we are watching a remake. Or a remake of a remake. Or a re-envisioning of a remade remake. Hence, the new L.A. La Land segment, "Take One, Two, Three..."

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During my research of the always stellar Ms. Jean Arthur, I watched the very enjoyable film Too Many Husbands of 1940. The premise of the film is as follows: A year ago, Vicky (Jean) was married to Bill Cardew (Fred MacMurray), but Bill went missing while on a dangerous expedition for work. He was assumed drowned and declared dead. Vicky took comfort in Bill's long-suffering best friend Henry Lowndes (Melvyn Douglas), whom she married. Now, Bill is back, having magically survived all this time on a desert island, and he comes home to find his beloved married to his ex-BFF! Who will Vicky choose? Which man does she truly love the most?

The movie is one of Jean's lesser remembered efforts, though it is very entertaining to watch the two grown men become whimpering babies and compete for a very enthusiastic woman's affection. The story, based on a W. Somerset Maugham play and written for the screen by Claude Binyon would be tried a few times more, with different directors, writers, and actors, but in the future, there would be a slight alteration to the plot: it is the wife who is shipwrecked, and the husband who has just remarried when the past shows up at his front door. As far as I know, this new slant has been done at least three times, the first of which was a mere two months after Too Many Husbands was released! Seems like a rival studio smelled a winning concept...

1) My Favorite Wife

 This adorable gem was released in May of 1940 and remains better remembered than its two month senior because of the performance of comedy duo Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. One of the greatest screwball queens, Dunne shines in her role as the quirky, martyred wife--Ellen Arden-- who returns home after 7 years to discover that her husband, Nick, has just wed Bianca Bates (Gail Patrick). Cary, as always, plays "perfectly perplexed" like nobody's business-- (was there ever a handsomer buffoon)??? Another log is thrown on the very confusing fire when Nick, at first elated to find his dead wife alive, discovers that she had been living on her distant island with another survivor, who just happens to be the incredibly handsome Steve Burkett (Randolph Scott). The expected jealousies, misunderstandings, and conniving ensue, but in the end, a decision has to be made and a true wife chosen.

 Cary sizes up the competition...

The major difference from Too Many Husbands, other than the sex change, is that MFW is both safer and funnier. With the rice still on Nick's tux, the audience is led to believe that he and Bianca's union is unconsummated, thus they have not been accidentally living in sin for the past seven years-- unlike Jean Arthur's character, who got to wed and bed two different men all within 1 year. Secondly, Jean thoroughly enjoys her predicament, and gloats while her two hubbies lobby for her affections and woo her like school boys. This made Husbands a little more interesting, but Wife, written ironically by Arthur's good friend Garson Kanin, is much more clownish. The characterizations and plot points are more intricate, including the fact that Ellen is coming back home to not only her husband but her children as well. The resulting movie becomes more about a wife's well-formed knowledge of her husband, which gives her the upper hand in the ensuing shenanigans, than about her trying to foolishly win him back. Re-teamed with each other after The Awful Truth of 1937, Grant and Dunne work well together and are very believable as two squabbling soulmates who, argue as they might, know that they could never truly belong to anyone else. In their capable and uproarious hands, the film becomes about marriage, family, and true love, and less about the crazy situation surrounding it all. Perhaps the fact that the chemistry on the set of Husbands was dead in the water is what denied it its resonance with the public, while MFW was a runaway hit!

2) Something's Got to Give

 Over twenty years after My Favorite Wife, this film was chosen as a perfect vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, who was looking to make a personal and professional comeback after the Kennedy humiliation and her failed passion project with husband Arthur Miller, The Misfits, (which wouldn't be recognized as a classic until years later). The plot is the same as above, with Marilyn stepping into Irene's shoes as Ellen and Dean Martin playing husband Nick. Cyd Charisse is cast as the ill-fated newlywed, Bianca, who doesn't stand a chance against the first Mrs. Arden. Sadly, the film was never completed due to Marilyn's untimely death, but the surviving footage of her swimming naked in the pool made it into the mainstream, and with the rest of the surviving footage, as well as Marilyn's cinematic reputation, it is safe to assume that this version would have had a much sexier vibe. (Irene definitely did not go skinny dipping in the 1940 film)!

Since SGG remains incomplete, it is difficult to really judge it, but My Favorite Wife seems to be a superior film. The charming Charisse is no match in her characterization for the always superbly bitchy Gail Patrick, and Dean and Marilyn lack the chemistry of Grant and Dunne, but the later film still has its merits. Though George Cukor was annoyed on set at the presence of Paula Strasberg and Marilyn's childlike dependence on her, the camera cannot deny that there is a depth in Ms. Monroe's performance that was lacking in many of her earlier films. The scene where is she reunited with her oblivious children is a sweet and adorable moment in itself. In addition, she looks better than ever, having shed some weight and nursed herself back to her sexy self after a painful miscarriage and a divorce from Miller. Dean is boyishly funny, as per usual, but without a finished product, we'll never know if this one matched the class of the original. It remains infamous today for the fact that it was Marilyn's last film, and seeing it with the documentary Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days is heartbreaking to say the least. I think it is safe to assume that the back story of the shoot, where Marilyn's erratic behavior irked even the mellow mannered Dean Martin, is more intriguing than the film itself would have been.

After the failure of Something's Got to Give, studio heads were not deterred. Just because they couldn't get lightning to strike twice in the same place, didn't mean that the third time couldn't be the charm...

3) Move Over Darling

Enter Doris Day. If anyone could bring a little sunshine and life back into a dead script, it would be the reigning Queen of Cheer. One year after SGG came to a sad and screeching halt, writers Bella and Sam Spewack revamped their 1962 script for 1963, this time making alterations to create a vehicle for Day and James Garner. Bianca would be played by Polly Bergen this time around, and comedy genius Don Knotts would add a little flavor as the shoe salesman that Day, as the eternal Ellen Arden, tries to bribe into standing in as the man she spent her time on the island with. (The role was played by Wally Cox in SGG and Chester Clute in MFW). Of course, the real Stephen Burkett, who enrages Nick's jealousy, is played by the much more muscled Chuck Conners. The movie was a success, becoming the 6th biggest moneymaker of that year, and there was even a great little homage to My Favorite Wife in the scene where Eve gives Bianca a massage and describes a classic old movie.

Just as the story was altered for Marilyn, so it was for Doris, and her zany physical comedy was put to the test. She, of course, passed at every turn, even when it resulted in injury (Garner accidentally broke two of her ribs in the aforementioned massage scene) and embarrassment (Doris drives through the car wash with the top down, emerging like a wet poodle). Her ease and self-effacing nature made her a good sport in the film and provided a fresh take on the original story. In her own way, she was able to capture the original humor that Dunne introduced, though Doris definitely enjoys hamming it up, while Dunne was more about subtlety. Move Over Darling's supporting cast was also strong, including an appearance by everyone's favorite character actress, Thelma Ritter, and a humorous and charming turn by the flabbergasted Garner.

Whichever version you like the best, all three present the same theme of reawakened passion. The truest lovers, separated by years of longing, are reunited only to fall in love with each other even more than before. What was torn asunder by happenstance is mended by undying devotion, though there are several hoops and stumbling blocks along the way. I stand by the original, as I do in most instances, for where would any of the other films be without it? While each piece offers its own take, and it is interesting to see how the story mutates in different hands and communicates different ideas, you can't top that Dunne-Grant spark!

If the story were made today, it would make a very different film. Since we no longer live in the (hypothetical) Age of Innocence, the returned wife stopping at nothing to keep her husband from the bridal bed would not be quite as intense a mission. Still, maybe we will see it again someday and laugh our heinies off at an oldie but a goody-- a different spin, for a new generation.


  1. Fantastic post (as always)! I just recently watched Too Many Husbands, which means I've seen all but one of these films. I didn't even know about Something's Gotta Give. That is so neat.

  2. Yay! So glad. You should definitely watch SGG on the Marilyn Doc. It is less than an hour of footage I think, but it is all really interesting and she looks gorgeous. Sad :( I remember watching it years ago when I was in my Marilyn phase, I was like, "Wait a minute, this seems awfully familiar..." Haha.

  3. Lovely post! I'm always surprised by Irene Dunne's comedic talents - she just doesn't look like she'd be funny! I haven't seen the Doris Day one yet...

  4. Emma: I completely agree! Irene was so hysterical and vibrant on screen, but in life she was married to a dentist?!?! So strange! I love her though. if you haven't seen Life with Father, you need to. She and William Powell are fantastic! :)