My Favourite Wife
US (1940) Dir. Garson Kanin
In 1864 Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the poem Enoch Arden about a fisherman who was lost at sea and presumed dead but returned a decade later to find his wife had remarried. Not wanting to ruin his wife’s happiness, Enoch kept his return secret and died of a broken heart. Hardly a fertile plot for a screwball comedy but this was back when Hollywood actually had the gumption to try new ideas.
Lawyer Nicholas Arden (Cary Grant) wants to marry Bianca Bates (Gail Patrick) but first he has Judge Bryson (Granville Bates) declare his missing wife of seven years Ellen Wagstaff Arden legally dead, which he does. Meanwhile, as the newlyweds are en route to their honeymoon in Yosemite, a mysterious woman shows up at the family home – Ellen (Irene Dunn) was finally rescued after being shipwrecked on a remote island.
Disappointed to find Nick had remarried, Ellen races off to Yosemite where she and Nick are finally reunited, although Nick can’t bring himself to tell Bianca the truth about Ellen, and she doesn’t want to wreck the marriage either, but has no such claims on Nick especially now she is legally dead. However, it would appear that Ellen has been a bit dishonest with Nick too.
After the success of The Awful Truth in 1937 RKO were keen to reunite its leads Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in the hope of capitalising on the chemistry that resulted in box office gold. Tennyson’s downbeat narrative was given a quirky pep up to fit in with the light hearted mood of war era cinema to provide the framework for what proved to be the studio’s second biggest hit of the year, after the Oscar winning Kitty Foyle.
Originally set to be directed by Leo McCarey, who also co-wrote the screenplay, filming was delayed when McCarey almost died in a car accident, limiting his role to that of producer instead. Former stage actor turned director Garson Kanin took over the director’s chair, a mere 28 years old at the time, but his style on this film was very much entrenched in that of his seniors.
Judging by the two young children in the film, Tim (Scotty Beckett) and Chinch (Mary Lou Harrington), who were mere babes when Ellen left them, it seems young people in the 1940’s were no different from old people – a race of Jacob Rees-Moggs if you will (as terrifying a thought that may be). The kids are the first ones from the family to meet the returned Ellen but have no clue who she is, knowing only their mother drowned.
Ellen’s mother-in-law (Ann Shoemaker) is the first adult to get the big shock but is immediately accepting of the situation. This is where the small details of the script waver under the scrutiny of the modern eye – first Ellen has “her first hot bath in seven years” but actually has a shower, with a bathing cap ON! Surely she’d wanted to wash her immaculately cut and styled hair after seven years?
Then, when needing a change of clothes, Nick’s mother conveniently kept some of Ellen’s old dresses “just in case” and wouldn’t you know, they still fit perfectly after seven years! This does become a small joke as they are seven years out of fashion and Ellen gets a lot of stares from other women at the hotel in Yosemite for wearing such outdated garments.
Nick’s first glimpse of Ellen is a simple yet wonderfully timed piece of visual comedy that provides the first real big laugh of the film. His paranoia and need to find out if that really was his dead wife in the hotel lobby is less successful in getting laughs but has its moments. Stealing the scenes is the hotel desk clerk (Donald MacBride) and his increasing suspicions and disapproval of Nick’s seemingly busy love life.
We haven’t even reached the 20-minute mark yet and with a total run time of just 84 minutes, it is obvious this is a bit of a sprint. The script tries to get a bit too much mileage out of Nick’s balancing act at the hotel between his two wives which continues back at home, where Ellen is forced to pretend to be an old family friend from the south, which allows her to get closer to the kids, while Nick tries to tell Bianca the truth.
The much needed fork in the road arrives when Nick learns that Ellen wasn’t alone on the island for those seven years – she had company in the form of one Stephen Burkett, whom Nick tracks down, finding a beefy, athletic heartthrob (Randolph Scott) and is immediately threatened; meanwhile unaware of this, Ellen hires a short, timid shoe salesman to pretend to be Burkett to assuage Nick’s fears.
Cinemagoers in 1940 didn’t feel the need to dissect the script or question the plausibility of this unique scenario and lapped it all up like a thirsty puppy, but looking at it from a modern perspective, it is easy to see where the script should have focused its energies and where to take the various plot threads. That said, this isn’t a complete mess and it was kept simple because audiences were less demanding back then when it came to rom coms.
It might not be remembered as a bona fide classic of the genre but it delivers the sort of fun distraction people wanted from the cinema with the starts they loved. The aforementioned chemistry between Grant and Dunne is palpable here eve without having seen The Awful Truth first, and it is hard not to want Gail Patrick’s high maintenance shrew Bianca to get out of the way.
There is no question that My Favourite Wife could have been a tighter and more exploratory film but given the circumstances under which it was made, it is an amiable enough effort with a gentle quirky comic frisson to hold our interest.