Sunday, August 18, 2013

Too Many Husbands (Columbia, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Too Many Husbands, which I’d recorded as part of a TCM “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to Fred MacMurray — I hadn’t expected much from this but it was a reasonable length (81 minutes) and the synopsis (“When her long lost husband returns after her re-marriage, a woman decides to try life with two mates”) promised at least a nice bit of studio-generated entertainment. What we got was a film much better than I’d thought it would be, a marvelous Code-bending romp through a situation that gave rise to several other films around the same time — the same year that Columbia released this movie, 1940, RKO came up with My Favorite Wife (reuniting director Leo McCarey and stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant from Columbia’s big comedy hit of 1937, The Awful Truth) with much the same premise: a woman is left alone after her husband sails out to sea and (presumably) drowns, and she falls in love with his best friend and — at least in Too Many Husbands — actually marries him. Then husband number one turns out not to have drowned after all; he’s rescued, he returns home expecting to resume his relationship where he left it off, and complications ensue. Too Many Husbands began life in 1919 as a play by W. Somerset Maugham, who had basically taken over Oscar Wilde’s mantle as dramatic chronicler of the romantic misadventures of the British classes — and who, like such other Gay or Bisexual writers as Wilde and Noël Coward, brought his Gay sensibility to bear on the domestic (mis)adventures of heterosexuals and had a refreshingly cynical view of the whole idea of “fidelity” and the palpably absurd notion that human beings can regularly pair off with one and only one partner, till death to them part. (It does happen but it’s not the usual thing, despite society’s exaltation of it as an ideal and ferocious pressure on anyone who doesn’t conform to it.) It opens in the offices of the Lowndes and Cardew publishing company, two years after partner Bill Cardew’s (Fred MacMurray) mysterious (supposed) drowning at sea in his yacht, and Henry Lowndes (Melvyn Douglas) has got to the point where he’s decided to take Cardew’s name off the door to the firm’s office, which he does with the implacable self-assurance of Sam Spade’s similar removal of the (genuinely) dead Miles Archer’s name from his office door in The Maltese Falcon a year later.

Then we meet Vicky Lowndes (Jean Arthur), who was Cardew’s wife until she had him declared legally dead and married Lowndes essentially on the rebound. She expects to have dinner with her husband but he’s too busy — the linotypers at the printing company have just gone on strike and he has to settle the labor dispute personally — and naturally she’s not a happy camper. The Lowndeses (incidentally the name “Lowndes” is a real tongue-twister for the actors here and it keeps coming out sounding more like “Lawrence”) live with her father George (Harry Davenport) — usually in stories like this it’s the mother-in-law from hell but this time it’s the father-in-law from hell, a neat “spin” on the old cliché from Maugham and screenwriter Claude Binyon — and it’s dad who gets the phone call from Bill Cardew, alive, reasonably well and with such a scraggly growth of hair and beard he resembles Bela Lugosi’s makeup in The Island of Lost Souls and only the familiar MacMurray voice emerging from all that hair “outs” him. It turns out Cardew was stranded on a South Seas island for a year and then, when he finally was rescued, it was by a ship that lacked a radio. But he’s determined to get shaved, groomed, cleaned up and reunited with Vicky, whom he’s been thinking of for two years. Bill moves into the house together — I was waiting for some plot strand in which he wanted to take over full partnership of the business as well, but once Bill returns the whole business thread (including the long-suffering secretary who was in unrequited love with both Bill and Henry, and who I thought was being set up as a consolation prize for whichever man lost Vicky) disappears from the plot and the action stays pretty much in the Lowndes home afterwards. From then on Too Many Husbands is a marvelous romp with Vicky, delightfully maddening in that special way Jean Arthur had, keeping both men on tenterhooks, refusing to make up her mind between them, and forcing both of them to sleep in adjoining twin beds in the guest room — there’s a marvelous gag in which Henry discovers that Bill snores like a cement mixer — and setting up one scene whose homoerotic implications probably sailed over 1940 audiences but seem all too obvious now, in which Henry sneaks into what he thinks is Vicki’s room, declares his undying love for her, and of course he turns out to be talking to Vicki’s dad.

The ending is something of a cop-out — Columbia apparently filmed two versions and even sought out the advice of college girls at UCLA and USC to help them decide which to use; ultimately the version they released ends with a judge ruling that since Bill was not legally declared dead in a proper way, he, not Henry, is Vicki’s legal husband, though there’s a final tag scene in which Henry refuses to give up; he crashes Bill’s and Vicki’s first post-court date at Frank’s, the favorite restaurant of all the parties involved, and they end up in a preposterous three-way huddle on the dance floor — but until then Too Many Husbands is a delightful movie that makes one wonder how they got it by the Production Code Administration and makes one happy there was a Production Code Administration so they had to depict the situation subtly and not go for the gamy, sexually blatant “humor” with which a similar plotline would be done today. The Code people did come down hard on Columbia when they first proposed the story — the Code office slammed them with a letter criticizing the story’s “apparent lack of any respect for the sanctity of marriage; its farcical treatment of the subject of bigamy; and its very frank and detailed discussion of the unsavory subject of divorce by collusion.” Just what Binyon and director Wes Ruggles — who was billed over the title, a surprise since that was an honor usually only directors of the box-office recognizability of Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra got in 1940, but Columbia had signed Ruggles to a producer-director deal similar to the one William Dieterle had got at RKO after finishing at Warner Bros. and being billed above the title was probably one of the perks he got in his contract — did to get Too Many Husbands past the Code office is unclear (you’d probably have to read Maugham’s original play and compare it to the film to figure it out) — but it paid off; the film is a minor comic gem (and Ruggles deserves points for the anti-type casting of making MacMurray the free-spirited around-the-world gallivanter and Douglas the solid/stolid stay-at-home type, when just about anyone else at the time would have cast them the other way around) and far more sophisticated and genuinely witty than a movie on the same theme would be today.