Move Over, Darling

US (1963) Dir. Michael Gordon

In this current climate of Hollywood remaking and rebooting everything under the sun to the dismay of film buffs everywhere, it needs reminding that some of the most regarded classics of our time are themselves remakes. Take this much-loved rom-com from the 60’s for example, an updated version of a 1940’s hit.

Lawyer Nicholas Arden (James Garner) is in court because his wife Ellen has been missing for five years and he wants Judge Bryson (Edgar Buchanan) to declare Ellen legally dead, so Arden can marry new love, Bianca (Polly Bergen). While this is occurring, Ellen (Doris Day) return to US soil after being saved by the Navy and heads for home unaware of the huge changes that have happened in her absence.

After learning from her shocked mother-in-law Grace (Thelma Ritter) that Arden has remarried, Ellen heads to the hotel where the couple are honeymooning to prevent the marriage from being consummated. After the initial shock of seeing Ellen alive, Arden agrees to tell Bianca, but doesn’t quite know how to go about it.

The eagle-eyed among you will have recognised the plot from the 1940 Cary Grant-Irene Dunne comedy My Favourite Wife, which has been given a shiny Technicolor upgrade and snappier 60’s riffing to the humour. Story wise and in its presentation, it is practically a beat-for-beat duplicate, some of which is necessary, other times a fresh idea would have been preferred.

Originally designed as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, with Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse as her co-stars, called Something’s Got To Give but Monroe’s erratic and unprofessional behaviour saw her fired from the project. Lee Remick was brought in as Monroe’s replacement but Martin refused to continue without Monroe so she was rehired, but she dies before resuming filming.

20th Century Fox, having already invested so much time and money in the production, had it re-titled, recast, and assigned a new director, the result bearing no signs of the spectre of the prior failed attempt. As an added bonus, the title song sung by Doris Day (and co-written by her son) was a hit single in the UK in 1964 and no. 1 in other territories.

Being a remake means comparisons to the original are inevitable and with so many key scenes from the 1940 version reappearing here in carbon copy form, like Arden’s first time seeing Ellen again from behind the closing lift door, trying to judge this version on its own merits is quite difficult. Luckily, Garner and Grant played the aforementioned scene in their own way, making this verbatim repeat of the gag actually work.

This is in fact true of the entire film, the only time the line between copy and parody is crossed is with the exasperated hotel manager role. In the original Donald MacBride stole every scene he was in; Fred Clark does a great job in the same role here and is the more unctuous of the two with a proto-Basil Fawlty to his character, but has been given less room to make it his own.

In a moment of ironic meta-self awareness, the original film is directly referenced in the script – with Ellen still trying to get Arden to tell Bianca about her being alive, she poses as a Swedish masseuse (complete with exaggerated accent because 1960’s) when Arden fakes a back injury. Ellen massages Bianca, during which she asks her what if the first Mrs. Arden was still alive, citing the 1940 film as a possible precedent.

Other differences are born more from the social and technological changes in the 23 years between the two films, such as the hotels being bigger, or Ellen being baffled by changes like area codes being added to her old phone number. A couple of major changes are that Ellen was gone for five not seven years, and her children who were just babies when she disappeared, are both girls here, when they were boy and girl before.  

There are a lot of the incidental details of the plot which were skipped over in this script, and for some odd reason, this meant that as a pedant, I didn’t feel the need to question them as a much as I did with the original which did address them. For example, Ellen’s wardrobe was still en vogue, which was a noted plot point of the 1940’s Ellen when she was out and about, incurring looks of disgust for wearing outdated fashions.

Finally, the ending is noticeably different with a slight twist to the dynamic of Ellen’s shipwrecked co-survivor Stephen Burkett (Chuck Connors), who she forgot to tell Arden about, leading to a cute climax with less forced sentimentality and crowd-pleasing cheesiness of the original. This again is another reflection on how times had changed yet both films are empirically chaste compared to today’s standards.

Looking at which film would appear more today, this version would and not just through being in colour either. The humour is broader and the dialogue is much snappier, whilst all the characters have defined personalities, even the supporting cast, who aren’t there to make the leads look good. Thelma Ritter is too precious as grace, whilst Don Knotts as the nerdy shoe salesman is another scene-stealing highlight.

Doris Day is known as being a paragon if wholesomeness in Hollywood, and it is this aura that makes her iteration of Ellen more sympathetic than Irene Dunne’s, and her sparky resolve feel natural. She also reveals how underrated she is as an actress in the emotional scenes. James Garner wisely doesn’t try to follow Cary Grant, thus proves  be a great sparring partner for Day and the needy but under developed Polly Bergen.

Move Over, Darling sails very close to the original film for is own good, yet demonstrates rather admirably how it is possible to update an old story with sufficient modern panache and character to feel fresh for audiences old and young. Not that anyone today should remake it though…