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)
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)
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)
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?
No, I didn’t think so.