Monday, March 9, 2009

Wife, Husband and Friend (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we watched was Wife, Husband and Friend, a sprightly comedy set in and around the opera world which 20th Century-Fox released in 1939 and which Turner Classic Movies showed the night before as part of an entire program of films about opera. (Had I been programming a night of films about opera, I would have probably picked Citizen Kane, The Great Caruso, Grace Moore’s French film of Louise and the marvelous Evelyn Laye vehicle Evensong.)

TCM sandwiched this one in between the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera and the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy Maytime, and while it’s hardly at the level of either of those (very different) masterpieces it’s a quite entertaining movie with a quirky plot from the pen of James M. Cain (of all people, though actually Cain had trained as an operatic baritone — though, like the characters in this movie, he was never good enough for a professional career — and opera appears in quite a number of his other stories, notably Serenade and Mildred Pierce, though the plot thread of Mildred’s daughter Veda studying to be a soprano was omitted from the film version).

Wife, Husband and Friend deals with New York-based building contractor Leonard Borland (Warner Baxter) and his socialite wife, Doris Borland (Loretta Young, top-billed), who has always had a yen to be an opera singer. Leonard’s father-in-law, a sympathetic Major Blair (George Barbier), points out that this seems to be a recurring problem with the women in his family — his own wife (Helen Westley) had her own singing ambitions, and what we hear of her voice is not only amateurish but excruciatingly awful. In order to get the opera bug out of her system, Leonard rents Town Hall and promotes his wife’s concert — including browbeating all his suppliers and business contacts to buy tickets even though, because of the late-1930’s recession, his own business is barely hanging on. In an effort to get the premier music critic in New York, Rudolph Hertz (Lawrence Grant), to go to his wife’s concert, he crashes Hertz’s home at a time when New York’s reigning diva, Cecil Carver (Binnie Barnes), is lunching with him — and Cecil (that’s right, a woman named Cecil) is immediately smitten with him.

She invites him to lunch at his place, and he accepts mainly because he’s interested in getting an unbiased expert opinion as to whether his wife actually has a professional-quality voice or not. She tells him that her voice is good but not good enough for a career, which is about what he thought too, and in the meantime a servant of hers brings her a note from a naval base where she’s about to give a benefit concert. The note announces that she’s supposed to add a sailor’s song to her program; she doesn’t know it, but Leonard does, and when he sings it for her (courtesy of voice double Emery D’Arcy, who on the basis of this movie was a decent if not exceptional baritone before he made the dumb decision to try to push up to tenor and recorded an awful version of the duet from the end of act one of Die Walküre with Helen Traubel for Columbia) she proclaims that it is he who has the major voice in the family.

Accordingly she coaches him and puts him on tour with her under the pseudonym “Logan Bennett,” and he appears with her and tells his wife he needs to visit these cities for his own construction business. Meanwhile Doris makes her own debut as a professional singer — as intermission act in a movie theatre — and she’d booed off the stage during her first song. She goes to her previously scheduled party and Leonard, who was supposed to leave that week on another leg of his tour with Cecil, attends it with her (interestingly the set on which this party takes place has a long, winding staircase leading down into the room much like the one on which Bette Davis told her party guests to fasten their seatbelts in All About Eve for the same studio 11 years later) and has to convince her that Cecil’s interest in him is purely professional, not amatory. He does this by singing “On the Road to Mandalay” (which the entry on this film in the American Film Institute Catalog for some reason attributes to Earl Burtnett, Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim even though it’s clearly the familiar Oley Speakes setting of Rudyard Kipling’s poem), and after Doris gets insulted that her husband has pursued a singing career behind her back, she throws him out and he goes on a week-long bender.

Coming to owing nearly $100 on the room rent in a fleabag hotel, he calls Cecil to borrow the money to pay his bill — and she insists on casting him as her co-star in an upcoming opera called Arlesiana (not the real opera of that name by Ciléa, or the play with incidental music by Bizet, but a faux opera by Sam Pokrass with words by Armando Hauser). Suffering from stage fright and (perhaps) a few too many nips from a convenient bottle before he goes on, he makes an ass of himself, grabbing the top of a banister, losing his hairpiece and dragging a prop rosebush across the stage — and he and his wife are finally reunited by each recognizing their own vocal incompetence.

Wife, Husband and Friend (the title seems to have been more of an effort to duplicate the cadence of a previous movie that teamed Young and Baxter, Wife, Doctor and Nurse, than anything reflecting the actual plot of this film) is a nice comedy that could have been even better if the people in it who are supposed to have major voices had been cast with actors who could actually sing — I had fun fantasizing what this film could have been with Nelson Eddy in Baxter’s role, not only because he had a real voice but because audiences of the time knew he did and therefore his character’s ridicule of opera in general and his wife’s ambitions to sing it in particular would have been even funnier. As it is, d’Arcy’s doubling of Baxter’s voice is one of the most obvious in the history of movies, and while the voice doubles of the two principal women are at least a better match for their speaking voices (Young was dubbed by Tamara Shavrova and Barnes by Nina Koshetz), and Shavrova (like Jean Forward, Dorothy Comingore’s voice double in Citizen Kane) avoids the mistake of singing so badly that even someone with a tin ear could have realized her incompetence at once, she and Koshetz are close enough in vocal quality that it’s hard to believe that one of these people is supposed to be an out-of-her-depth amateur and the other is a superstar.

Still, it’s a fun movie and 20th Century-Fox got a lot of mileage out of this plot — not only was the film remade exactly by screenwriter/producer Nunnally Johnson in 1949 as Everybody Does It (with Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas — even more unbelievable as an opera star than Baxter, which was probably the point — as the stars and Edmund Goulding replacing Gregory Ratoff as director), but the basic plot point got recycled as The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), in which gangster Edmond O’Brien hires publicity agent Tom Ewell to build up his mistress, Jayne Mansfield, into a rock star — she doesn’t make it (she decides she’d rather be a housewife with Ewell) but O’Brien’s character does, with a song about a rock pile he wrote while in prison!