Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (Warner Bros., 1945, released 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that I switched to Turner Classic Movies for a very odd film that I wasn’t too familiar with even though it’s the only movie that co-starred two of my favorite actors of all time, Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck. It’s called The Two Mrs. Carrolls and was shot at Warner Bros. in 1945 but not released until 1947. It was the result of a brief period in Bogart’s career in which the people in charge at Warner Bros., Jack Warner and Henry Blanke, decided that after Bogart’s successive screen incarnations as gangster and then as world-weary bad-good guy who finally regains his ideals at the end of the film, the way to push his popularity to even greater levels would be to cast him as a psychopath anxious to dump his current wife for another woman and seeing no other way of doing that but knocking her off. The first such film was Conflict (1945), in which Bogart’s character fell for his sister-in-law and arranged a fake “accident” in which his wife supposedly died, only his friend, police detective Sydney Greenstreet, figured out the plot and arrested him. (One can see the wheels turning on this one: “We’ll make Bogart the bad guy and Greenstreet the good guy!”) Just before Conflict was released Warners put Bogart into a similar story, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, based on a play by an author identified as Martin Vale but really (like George Eliot and George Sand) a woman, Marguerite Vale Veiller, writing under a man’s name (and her husband, Bayard Veiller, was also a writer specializing in overstuffed drawing-room thrillers like this). The play opened in London in 1935 and, in a version revised for American audiences, on Broadway in 1943, whereupon Warners grabbed the film rights. The female lead was first announced for Bette Davis (which would have worked only if the screenwriter, Thomas Job, had flipped the characters around and made the wife the psychopath out to murder her husband!) and then for Ida Lupino, with Zachary Scott penciled in as the male lead, but eventually Warners settled on Bogart and Stanwyck for the leads and announced Mervyn LeRoy as director (which would have required borrowing him from his home studio, MGM) before hiring Peter Godfrey, apparently because Godfrey had just made the farce comedy Christmas in Connecticut with Stanwyck and they had got along well.

Somehow one would have expected the one on-screen teaming between such formidable talents as Bogart and Stanwyck to be a great film (indeed, as good as Mary Astor is in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon despite being a decade or so too old for the role, I can’t help but imagine what that film would have been like with Stanwyck in the female lead) instead of what we get here, which is basically Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion meets Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard. (In fact, after watching The Two Mrs. Carrolls I downloaded the Ulmer Bluebeard from and screened it just to remind myself that this is one time in Hollywood history where the “A”-listers screwed up a potentially powerful story premise and the “B”-listers nailed it!) Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) is a young up-and-coming American painter living in England — first in London and then the “church town” of Ashton in Kent — and in the opening scene he’s on a fishing trip in Scotland with a comic-relief guide and his girlfriend de jour, Sally Morton (Barbara Stanwyck, who doesn’t attempt any sort of accent even though her character is supposed to be British — but then given how wretched she sounded in the few films in which she did attempt an accent, that’s probably just as well; for all her extraordinary range, versatility and emotional power, one actor’s task that eluded Stanwyck her whole career was accents). Unfortunately, Sally sees a letter slip out of Geoffrey’s pocket (in the middle of a driving rainstorm — shades of Casablanca!) that reveals that he can’t marry her because he has a wife already. No problem; in the very next scene, after a sudden jump-cut that’s surprising in a film from the 1940’s, we’ve jumped forward two years. Geoffrey and Sally have got married following the death of his wife from a long illness, and they’re living in a large country home in Ashton — they even have a rose garden, though their neighbors, the Lathams (Isobel Elsom and her daughter Cecily, played by Alexis Smith), have a better one and have bred a new rose variety called the “Victor Hugo” that figures prominently in the plot. Together they’re raising Beatrice (Ann Carter, the marvelous child actress from Val Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People and almost as good here), Geoffrey’s child from his first wife, whom we never saw as an on-screen character. Our only evidence of what she looked like is a highly stylized painting Geoffrey made of her as the Angel of Death, which he completed about a month before she died and hung in the home he shares with Sally rather than offering it for sale.

Geoffrey has told Sally that his first wife became an invalid due to strains involved when Beatrice (or “Bea,” as she’s called through most of the film) was born — though Bea later contradicts him and says her mom was healthy and energetic until she became ill shortly before she died. Then we get a scene in which Geoffrey drives to London in a driving rainstorm (so much of this film takes place during torrential rains it gets annoying and oppressive after a while) and, using the name “Fleming,” buys a box of some unnamed but obviously sinister drug (you can tell from the dire tones of cinematographer Peverell Marley’s Gothic-style lighting and composer Franz Waxman’s music) from Horace Blagdon (Barry Bernard), a London chemist (remember that “chemist” is what the Brits call a pharmacist) with a scarred face who turns up later in Ashton and demands money from Geoffrey. We catch on immediately — Geoffrey bought poison and Blagdon is blackmailing him over it — but of course it’s going to take the characters considerably longer to figure it out. In the next scenes Sally herself is getting mysteriously ill, and she debates whether she’s strong enough to leave her bedroom upstairs in the house to come down to a dinner party Geoffrey is giving for the Lathams and for Sally’s former boyfriend Charles “Penny” Pennington (thoroughly lame, unsexy and boring actor Patrick O’Moore), whom Geoffrey immediately takes a dislike to. In a clever reworking of the final line from Casablanca, Geoffrey tells Penny when they first meet, “Y’know, I have the strangest feeling that this is the beginning of a beautiful hatred.” Geoffrey is being openly solicitous of his wife and keeps bringing her glasses of warm milk — and anyone who saw Suspicion can’t help but be, well, suspicious that not only is Geoffrey poisoning his suddenly inconvenient wife (he’s fallen for Cecily Latham — we’ve seen them surreptitiously holding hands and it’s obvious Geoffrey plans to knock off Sally the way he did his first wife and make Cecily the third Mrs. Carroll) but he’s using the same drink Hitchcock and his writers on Suspicion, Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville, picked to have their murderous husband use to poison his wife. There’s also a scene at a racetrack — well, at least it gets us out of that house for a while, and on one of the rare days in Ashton when it isn’t raining — in which director Godfrey appears on screen as an obnoxious racetrack tout who sells Penny a tip on a race (though the horse Penny bets, the favorite, loses to the one Sally selected).

Eventually, on yet another rainy night, Sally finally realizes she’s being poisoned; she lifts the window in the living room and pours out the poisoned milk (when she pours it out it all lands outside the window, but later Geoffrey finds spilled milk all over his living-room floor and realizes his wife knows he’s poisoning her, a continuity gaffe a lot of people have pointed out about this film). She locks herself in her upstairs bedroom and Geoffrey screams at her to be let in — and when she doesn’t he goes to the outside of the house and crashes through her bedroom window in a scene that makes him look like a horror-film monster (and reminds us that 10 years before this film Waxman had scored The Bride of Frankenstein). She holds a gun on him — a present from Penny in a previous scene — but he easily wrests it away from her and strangles her, though the police, summoned by Penny, the Lathams and Sally’s doctor, Dr. Tuttle (Nigel Bruce — though anyone who saw him as his comic version of Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone would have had zero faith in his talent and skills as a doctor!), arrive and break into the house in time to save her and arrest him. The Bluebeard parallels in this film are in the male lead being a psychologically tormented artist with a compulsion to kill the women he paints — not only did Geoffrey Carroll poison his first wife shortly after painting her as the Angel of Death, he’s executed a second Angel of Death painting with Sally as the model (he had it locked up but naturally Sally and Bea were dying of curiosity and opened the secret door to see it — heedless of the fate that befell the wives of Bluebeard who opened the doors in Béla Balasz’s libretto for Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle!) and he explains to Cecily that he’s exhausted Sally’s possibilities as a muse for him and needs a new wife to continue to inspire him. Ironically, Bogart made this movie right when he was dumping his third wife, Mayo Methot, for his fourth, Lauren Bacall — though he divorced Methot instead of poisoning her (actually Methot was a chronic alcoholic who was doing a fine job of poisoning herself with booze; she died in 1952) — and in order to have children, something he hadn’t been able to do with his three previous wives, Bogart was taking testosterone shots, which had the side effect of making him almost completely bald. As a result, in The Two Mrs. Carrolls he wears one of the most excruciatingly fake-looking toupées in the history of movies — it even makes Bing Crosby’s look good by comparison.  

The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a potentially good story premise that goes wrong on just about every turn; though there are some nice Gothic shots of that old house the Carrolls live in (I suspect more the inspiration of cinematographer Marley than the rather pedestian director Godfrey), the film has the deadly dull air of routine about it and Bogart and Stanwyck come off as two old pros saying their lines, hitting their marks and plowing their way through a movie they realized from the get-go was going to be a dog. I suspect one reason Warners finally took this movie out of the vaults and released it in 1947 (after the huge Bogart-Bacall hits To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep) was that Stanwyck had gone to Paramount and been announced for Sorry, Wrong Number, a far superior movie in which she played basically the same character she does here: an invalid who gradually realizes her husband is trying to knock her off. (Had they waited even longer and released The Two Mrs. Carrolls after Sorry, Wrong Number, the critics would probably have proclaimed it a ripoff.) I’m sure I’d seen The Two Mrs. Carrolls sometime in the 1970’s, when I was first getting interested in classic-era movies in general and Bogart’s films in particular, but I had no particular recollection of it at the time and it’s a movie that doesn’t deserve to be remembered: Bogart’s reaction to the emptiness of his characterization was to overact at the key moments — at least in the 1939 movie The Return of Doctor “X,” a far sillier movie than this one and in which Bogart was even more blatantly miscast (he was a mad scientist returned from the dead through transfusions arranged by fellow mad scientist John Litel), he kept his dignity and brought pathos to a ridiculous role. In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, he didn’t even try, and the film was a financial flop but luckily only a blip in Bogart’s career: he would go on to make two more movies with Bacall, Dark Passage and Key Largo, as well as classics like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that brought him back to the nervy good-bad characters he played best.