Husbands and Wives

For some reason the movies I watched this weekend all had a marital theme.  It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just grabbed DVDs that looked like fun, but maybe  on some level I was preparing myself for another season of watching Don and Betty Draper’s early ‘60s battle of the sexes. 

Too Many Husbands (1940)

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Too Many Husbands came out the same year as another, more popular “extra spouse” movie, My Favorite Wife, and to be honest it’s not as funny or memorable as the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film.  The three leads, Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray, are all good though, and the movie has its humorous moments.

One thing that sets Too Many Husbands apart from My Favorite Wife is its more risqué premise. Jean Arthur’s character, Vicky Lowndes, isn’t a newlywed “kissless” bride, as Cary Grant’s new wife is. Her first husband Bill Cardew (MacMurray) has been “dead” (like Dunne’s character in My Favorite Wife he was lost at sea and presumed drowned) for a year.  Vicky has been married to husband number two, Henry (Douglas), Bill’s best friend and business partner, for six months.

Once Bill returns Vicky can’t decide which man she loves more and which one she wants to stay married to. She seems quite excited by the prospect of bigamy, in fact, if only because she enjoys having two men paying attention to her and vying for her affections. She gets a wicked gleam in her eyes the night of Bill’s return, contemplating the fact that two attractive men are downstairs fighting over who has the right to join her in bed.

Her two husbands argue and tussle and show off for her. (One of the funniest parts of the movie is seeing these two grown men running around the living room like fools, hurdling armchairs to prove their manly prowess.) She spends time with each of them alone, in an attempt to make her decision, and ends up more confused.

Eventually the law has to step in and make the choice for her, but in spite of her winding up married to only one of the men, it’s clear from the movie’s ending, with Vicky dancing with both at the same time, each clinging to one of her arms, that things aren’t really settled at all.  The whole movie has a slightly perverse vibe, like maybe Vicky would be just as happy with a threesome situation, which was an interesting take for 1940, that’s for sure.

All in all a funny little screwball comedy, though not one of the greats. For me it suffers in comparison to My Favorite Wife, both in terms of humor and heart, but it’s still worth checking out for the wonderful Jean Arthur. Also for the sight of Fred MacMurray in his first scene, bearded and as wild looking as Tom Hanks in Cast Away, but considerably more happy-go-lucky about the whole desert island rescue scenario.

Dream Wife (1953)

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 I’ve watched An Affair to Remember over and over recently,which inspired me watch the other Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr collaborations, inferior though they both are to Leo McCarey’s 1957 gem. (It may be sentimental and imperfect, but for me An Affair to Remember is the movie equivalent of comfort food. Not necessarily as nutritious as some other meals, but good for the soul nonetheless.)

Grant and Kerr first starred together in 1953′s Dream Wife, a movie I should probably hate, but don’t. For one thing it’s really not that good, objectively speaking. Sidney Sheldon wrote and directed it, and at times it feels like an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, only without the supernatural angle. It gets very slapstick silly at times.

For another, it’s so sexist.  Grant plays Clemson Reade, an American businessman engaged to a State Department employee, Priscilla “Effie” Effington (Kerr). She’s a workaholic and doesn’t spend enough time with him, so Clem gets fed up, breaks the engagement, and proposes to an Arab princess whose father is involved in a business deal with him. The princess has been raised to cater to her husband’s every whim and live only to make her man happy, something that appeals greatly to Clem after being repeatedly brushed aside by Effie.

Check out this conversation Clem has with some fellas at the office.  It’s awful!  It’s like a scene out of Mad Men!  And yet it makes me laugh anyway, because Cary Grant’s delivery is so good.  He can turn almost anything into comedy gold.

 

Ex-fiancee Effie has to be involved in Clem’s wedding preparations by virtue of her job at the State Department (there’s an impending oil crisis involving the princess’s country), and she throws a wrench in the engagement by teaching the princess all about Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony, helping her break free of all that subservient female stuff.

Dream Wife is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, I guess.  I enjoy it in spite of its flaws.  Cary Grant plays his trademark crankiness to the hilt, and if his character is unpleasant at times, he at least makes it funny to watch. Deborah Kerr is lovely and beautifully dressed, and if her character really is focused on work to the neglect of her fiancé, she at least makes it funny to watch.

Dumb but cute is probably the best way to describe this movie. If it had starred anyone other than Grant and Kerr I probably wouldn’t have liked it much, but their charisma and chemistry go a long way.

In this movie, at least. Not so much in their final collaboration.

The Grass is Greener (1960)

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 Every few years I pop this movie in the DVD player, hoping that this will be the time I really like it, but every time I’m disappointed. You would think that with Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum starring and Stanley Donen directing it would be fantastic, but it’s not.

Grant is an English aristocrat, Victor, Earl of Rhyall, who has opened up his stately home to tourists in order to pay for its upkeep. Kerr is his wife, Hilary, who keeps busy with their two children, gardening, and growing and selling mushrooms in the village. They’re a comfortable, loving couple, and in their first scenes together they’re quite adorable to watch.

Then Robert Mitchum’s Charles Delacro, an American tourist and (of course) oil tycoon appears, brazenly pushing his way into the family’s private quarters and making a play for Hilary. She falls for him almost immediately, and after just half an hour spent together is in love and ready to sneak off to London for a tryst with him.

Which she does, even though Victor knows what’s going on, and she knows Victor knows what’s going on. Jean Simmons is Hilary’s kooky friend Hattie, who has a designs on Victor and gets mixed up in the situation, too.  It all winds up in a silly duel between Victor and Charles and a lot of yakking about the meaning of marriage, fidelity, and love between Victor and Hilary.

It’s all supposed to be very sophisticated, but it just icks me out. There are ways to handle adultery intelligently and entertainingly in a movie, whether as a comedy (The Awful Truth) or a drama (Brief Encounter), but The Grass is Greener isn’t good at doing it either way. It’s unbelievable to me that anyone involved could’ve dealt with the situation in such a cool, collected manner as the characters in this movie. 

More shallowly, what I really find implausible about the movie is the notion that anyone would risk losing Cary Grant’s sweet if stodgy Victor because of an infatuation with Robert Mitchum’s not too attractive and dull as toast Charles.  I know that’s my biased inner fangirl talking,  but honestly.  It’s Cary Grant!  Even at age 56, wearing comfy cardigans and thick black-framed glasses, he’s more charming and attractive than anyone has ever been.  I mean, would you throw over a husband who looked at you like this while you were in the bath?  For Robert Mitchum?

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No, I didn’t think so.

Lovely to Look At

Roberta (1935)

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 “Lovely to Look At,” the title of one of the songs featured in Roberta, would have made a perfect title for the film itself. It is lovely to look at, featuring glamorous mid-thirties movie fashion, delightful dances by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, songs sung by Irene Dunne, and requisite hunkiness from the handsome Randolph Scott. I imagine it must have been a wonderful escapist treat for people struggling through the Depression.

The story itself is a fluffy trifle, as these things tend to be. Randolph Scott is a big, strapping country boy football player from America who inherits his aunt’s chic Parisian fashion house when she dies. Irene Dunne is a fashion-savvy exiled princess who worked there as his aunt’s assistant. The two become partners in the business, fall in love, have misunderstandings and get back together.

Fred Astaire is Randolph Scott’s friend, who has brought his band to Paris. Astaire runs into Ginger Rogers, a girl from his hometown in Indiana, who is now a singer pretending to be a countess. She helps him get a job at her nightclub and they dance, sing and fall in love.

It’s really not about the plot at all. It’s about the songs, dances and fashion.

The songs in the movie are great, and some of them are still standards we know and love today, particularly “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “I Won’t Dance.” Irene Dunne had the kind of trilling, operetta-ish voice that was so popular at the time. It’s not my cup of tea, exactly, which is one of the reasons I’ve never made it through a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie.  Dunne’s voice is lovely, actually, but I guess that old-fashioned style of singing is an acquired taste.

 

Dunne doesn’t do a lot in this movie other than sing sweetly and look pretty, which is a shame. She was the big star and received billing above Astaire and Rogers (all of whom were billed above the title, unlike Scott, who was still in the below the title “with Randolph Scott” phase), but she wasn’t the funny, sassy Irene of The Awful Truth yet. Her wonderful comedic self was just around the corner, in 1936′s Theodora Goes Wild.

The real scene stealers in the movie are Astaire and Rogers. Where Irene Dunne’s long ballads, shot in close up, are very much of their time, the Astaire and Rogers numbers are still as fresh and full of fun as they were 74 years ago. This was their third picture together. Fred Astaire choreographed the dances in Roberta, and they’re some of the best I’ve seen from him. I read somewhere that he always counted his dance with Rogers to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” among his favorites ever.

Ginger is sweet, spunky and adorable as Liz/the countess. That silly fake accent! Fred’s character, Huck, is completely charming and very funny! He has the best lines of all the characters and delivers them with so much zing that I laughed out loud a lot. Astaire and Rogers are what really make this movie worth watching.

Take a look at this scene, in which they dance to “Hard to Handle”. This, to me, is what pure joy looks like. They make it seem so spontaneous – the way they just sort of fall into the dance together, with Ginger laughing in such a natural, happy way. This number is right up there with their “Pick Yourself Up” dance from Swing Time as one I can watch over and over and still find completely entrancing.

 

Isn’t Ginger’s outfit great? She looks so good in those high-waisted, wide-legged trousers.

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A bit of trivia — a very blond Lucille Ball appears ever so briefly in Roberta during the final fashion show. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but it’s fun to catch her if you can.

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A real leading man

Interesting article about Cary Grant in today’s New York Times, in connection with a series of his films being shown in New York City in August: Once Upon a Time, a Real Leading Man.

I love this part, and couldn’t agree more.

Watching him is to be reminded of a time when intelligence, grace and self-containment were their own rewards. The 21st century, so far, hasn’t deserved him.

For all the good things he has to say about Grant’s work in the article, however, Mike Hale still can’t help slipping into snooty, 21st-century, cooler-than-thou mode now and then, as when he discusses Penny Serenade.

It’s brave of the Brooklyn Academy of Music to be showing the 1941 weeper “Penny Serenade,” a hit at the time and an important moment in Grant’s career. But when Grant and Irene Dunne smile as their adopted child says she wants to be an angel before next year’s Christmas pageant, the howls will be heard across Fort Greene.

And yet Grant is worth watching, even in something as preposterous as “Penny Serenade,” and he makes the film worth watching too. (Well, almost. It helps that Edgar Buchanan is around to play the crusty older friend.)

Oh yeah, so brave. Forgive me if I roll my eyes. There’s no denying that Penny Serenade is unabashedly sincere and sentimental, and it’s a product of its time in terms of style, but is that so terrible that you have to be “brave” to screen it? Oh brother. In spite of its old-fashioned melodrama, the movie tackles a lot of issues that are still relevant today: infertility, adoption, what makes a “real” family, financial woes and a marriage struggling to survive a devastating loss.

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Irene Dunne and Cary Grant are both great. Cary is especially heartbreaking, falling in love with his adopted little girl, fighting to keep her when the court wants to take her away, and coming apart at the seams when years later he loses her in a way he can’t prevent. I love Penny Serenade! It is not preposterous. Hmph.

I also disagree that director George Stevens’ 1942 movie The Talk of the Town is “plodding” and a “clunker.” I watched it for the first time last weekend and found it quite funny, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Jean Arthur is her usual smart, spunky, hilarious self. There’s a scene involving a newspaper and an egg that made me laugh so hard I nearly fell out of my chair! I won’t say more in case you haven’t seen it, but good night that lady was funny. I’m just crazy about Jean Arthur these days.

Ronald Colman is outstanding as a stuffy law professor and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice who gets caught up in a crazy, career endangering situation that tests his beliefs about the law and brings out his humanity in a wonderful way.

And of course Cary is fantastic in a role that’s a strange, unexpected one for him. He plays a character called Leopold Dilg, a troublemaking, leftist rabble-rouser unjustly accused of burning down a factory and killing someone inside. He escapes from prison and hides out at Jean Arthur’s character’s house, which is being rented by the law professor. His character is idealistic yet wary, suspicious yet trusting, serious-minded yet in many ways a bit of a goof. It’s not a typical Cary Grant role, but as usual he brings his intelligence and perfect comic timing to the part. He’s endlessly fascinating to watch and is the most interesting person in the movie. At least to me he is, but then I’m biased!

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The whole thing is a weird mix of crime drama, social commentary, and screwball comedy — kind of a bridge between the silly farces popular in the 1930s and the more serious “message” pictures of the 1940s, like Gentleman’s Agreement (one of my favorite Gregory Peck films) and others produced by Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox.

The only real problem I had with the movie was that the romance seemed almost an afterthought, like it was tacked on only because movies need to end with a couple getting together. The three leads developed a lovely friendship, and both men grew to have feelings for the girl. I didn’t feel like she had a huge preference for one over the other, though, and the fact that she chose Cary Grant in the end seemed to happen mostly because, well, he was Cary Grant. And even if he was a penniless, unstable kind of guy and not an oddly English-sounding Supreme Court Justice, who cares? It was Cary Grant.

I read somewhere that George Stevens actually filmed two endings, one where Colman ends up with Arthur, and one where Grant does, intending to go with the ending test audiences preferred. I don’t remember all the details, but it was something like that. It feels like that uncertainty translated to the rest of the movie, since I could never quite figure out which fellow she was most smitten with.

Anyway, overall I liked The Talk of the Town a lot. It didn’t cause the kind of huge, revelatory “Oh my Lord, how have I never seen this masterpiece before?!?” moment Only Angels Have Wings did, but I’m still happy I finally watched it.

Another new-to-me movie I watched recently was Mr. Lucky, from 1943. This is another of those in-between movies Grant did in the early 1940s, and it too blends comedy and drama in an interesting way. I love his performance in this. He plays an amoral, draft-dodging gambler and con artist who, under a name stolen from a dead man (hello Don Draper/Dick Whitman!) plans to bilk a wartime ladies’ relief organization out of a huge amount of money.

Of course there’s more to this guy than all his bad qualities. He’s charming and funny, uses Cockney rhyming slang (something Grant apparently added to the script himself, since he knew it from his years growing up in England), and starts to develop tender feelings for one of the society ladies in charge at the relief organization. (She’s played by Laraine Day, whom I found rather bland and boring compared to other of Grant’s leading ladies.)

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Can this guy change his ways and go straight? Does he even want to? Does he really care about this lady or is it all part of the con? He puts on a smooth, happy-go-lucky façade with Day’s character, but at a certain point he blows up at her, full of anger and bitterness. He barks that her kind, upper class and wealthy, see through his kind, those who clawed their way out of the gutter however they could, as if looking at a dirty pane of glass. It’s a powerful moment; you can see the pain in his eyes.

I love the rare occasions when we see Cary Grant play someone lower class and gritty. The darkness always there beneath the surface of his elegant, sophisticated persona appears even more strongly, and it’s as if you get a glimpse of the motherless (to his knowledge, anyway), poverty-stricken young Archie Leach for a while. It’s an intense performance.

Hilarious in places too, as when one of the matrons at the aid society teaches him how to knit. He hates it at first, it offends his masculinity, but eventually he gets better at it and ropes his mob buddies into knitting, too. Nothing is funnier than hearing Cary Grant complain in his grumpy, put-upon way that someone made him drop a stitch. Hee!

Interesting bit of trivia. The idea for Mr. Lucky was pitched to Grant by the tennis pro at his club. He liked the idea so much that he asked the pro to write the script. The studio agreed, but only if the guy had the assistance of a professional writer. Still, what a vote of confidence, having Cary Grant go to bat for you like that!

Cary did that kind of thing quite a bit in his career, allowing first-time directors and writers to create material for him and getting studios to go along with it. (Richard Brooks making his directorial debut with Grant’s Crisis springs to mind.)  He eventually became a very hands-on producer when he started his own production companies. He was encouraging to new talent he believed in and gave them a hand when he could. 

It’s almost surprising that someone as controlling of his image and careful about the work he did as Grant would do something as risky as letting his tennis pro write a movie for him, but he did. And yet he refused other parts in top-shelf pictures that seem completely made for him, like the role of Joe Bradley in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday and the role of Linus Larrabee in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. He and Wilder were personal friends for years, but he always said no to acting in one of Wilder’s films. Why?! It was BILLY WILDER!

Cary was nothing if not a contradictory character. A complex one too, who had his own reasons for what he did or didn’t do. Whatever those reasons, he was usually spot-on at knowing what worked for him and what didn’t, and we’re lucky enough to have a lot of good movies and performances to enjoy because of that.

Oh gosh, I really love him an insane amount. Maybe the 21st century doesn’t deserve him, but thank goodness we have him anyway.

Cary Grant’s favorite leading ladies

Irene Dunne

Co-star in “The Awful Truth”, “Penny Serenade”, and “My Favorite Wife”

“I loved working with Cary – every minute of it.  Between takes he was so amusing with his cockney stories.  I was his best audience.  I laughed and laughed and laughed.  The more I laughed, the more he went on.”

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Katharine Hepburn

Co-star in “Sylvia Scarlett”, “Bringing Up Baby”, “Holiday”, and “The Philadelphia Story”

“We got on well, Cary and I.  It was fun to play with him, and I think he had a good time, too.  People liked us together, so we enjoyed it.”

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Ingrid Bergman

Co-star in “Notorious” and “Indiscreet”

When Hollywood shunned Ingrid Bergman for leaving her husband to marry Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Cary was one of the only stars who stayed in touch with her, stood by her side, and remained a friend.  When she returned to movies in the mid-1950s, he co-starred with her for the second time in “Indiscreet”.  “I was very fond of Ingrid,” Cary said.  “She was an amazing woman.  She was one of the world’s most talented women, completely secure and happy.”

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Rosalind Russell

Co-star in “His Girl Friday”.

  Cary introduced Russell to her husband, his friend Frederick Brisson, during the filming of “His Girl Friday” in 1941.  “Cary, you will never know the great joy you have helped bring us both and how much we shall always love you for it,” Rosalind wrote Cary.  “You must know, too, that the wedding would not be complete without you.  You who brought us together.  All love to you, Cary, darling.”  Cary was best man at their wedding.  Russell and Brisson were happily married until her death in 1976.

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Here are Cary and Rosalind at the 1942 Academy Awards.  Wartime, so no tuxedos and evening gowns here.  Looks like they had a fine time anyway.

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Grace Kelly

Co-star in “To Catch a Thief”

Cary absolutely adored Grace Kelly and was a devoted friend for the rest of her life.  “Grace had a kind of serenity, a calmness, that I hadn’t arrived at at that point in my life – and perhaps never will, for all I know.  She was so relaxed in front of the camera that she made it look simple.”  Cary admired women who were elegant, ladylike and refined.  Leslie Caron once said “Cary liked women who had a distinction and a certain education about them.  That’s what he liked about Grace Kelly.”

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 Deborah Kerr

Co-star in “Dream Wife”, “An Affair to Remember”, and “The Grass is Greener”

“His elegance, his wit, his true professionalism were outstanding, and I learned so much from just watching him work,” Kerr said.  “As a person, apart from his talent, he was warm and affectionate and a joy to have as a friend.  He lived simply and was not tremendously social – a very private person.  He was also a keen and shrewd businessman; in fact there was no end to his talents.  I treasure my memories of him.”

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Audrey Hepburn

Co-star in “Charade”

“I think he understood me better than I did myself,” said Audrey.  “He was observant and had a penetrating knowledge of people.  He would talk often about relaxing and getting rid of one’s fears, which I think he found a way to do.  But he never preached.  If he helped me, he did it without my knowing, and with a gentleness which made me lose my sense of being intimidated.  I had this great affection for him because I knew he understood me.  It was an unspoken friendship, which was wonderful.  He would open up his arms wide when he saw you, and hug you, and smile, and let you know how he felt about you.”

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