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From the Vaults: 'My Favorite Wife' (1940)

August 9, 2010 |  2:27 am

Wife Returning to earlier themes of Cary Grant and wife-swapping, this week we have "My Favorite Wife," a screwball comedy. As usual with this genre, your mood will determine whether you find the antics hilarious or simply trying. So if you are at all tired or cranky, maybe watch a nice slasher film instead and save this one for a night you're feeling more mellow. But if you're in the mood, it's just peachy.

Grant plays Nick, a widower who lost his first wife, Ellen (Irene Dunne), to a shipwreck, and is about to marry Bianca (Gail Patrick) when suddenly Ellen reappears -- not dead after all! (Sorry, this is not one of those romantic zombie comedies.) This plot will be dear to anyone who has ever watched a soap opera, and I know there are more of you out there than you will ever let on. I myself fondly remember the "Sunset Beach" episode when Ben was about to marry Meg but then Maria washed ashore from the desert island where she'd been shipwrecked...

Anyway, it's certainly a situation that puts the husband in a bind, and Grant does his usual share of bugging his eyes and then debonairly trying to smooth things over. He's very charming, of course, and he makes it immediately clear what Nick wants to do: he loves Ellen, and he wants to call things off with Bianca. But he just -- can't -- bring -- himself -- to do it! If he could, the movie would be 10 minutes long. I got pretty tired though of watching him dither and fuss and placate Bianca and then turn around and placate Ellen. When he finally gets punched in the face, it's almost too late to be satisfying.


WifehallucinThings do pick up when Nick discovers that Ellen wasn't alone on the island: she spent her seven years  shipwrecked with the hunky Steve (Randolph Scott). I quite enjoyed this bit of payback for Nick; he's haunted by repeated hallucinations of Steve performing athletic feats on a trapeze (there he is at right), and he sneaks around the pool making goggle eyes at his muscle-bound rival. Take that, Mr. Hems and Haws!

Dunne is utterly luminous as the long-lost Ellen. Somehow I'd never seen one of her movies before and she's magnificent: her Ellen radiates intelligence, humor and serenity. You can totally imagine her getting comfortable on a desert island and making the best of things. And she's heartbreakingly fragile as she tentatively returns to her old life -- I loved the scene where she reunites with her dog, who remembers her, and her kids, who don't.

What does kind of bug me about this movie is the way it treats Bianca. Gail Patrick is hilarious, throwing up her hands and slamming doors and having crying fits and calling a psychiatrist, but I hate how the movie has to turn her into a shrew so you don't feel bad about Nick eventually dumping her for Ellen. All the poor girl did was marry the man she loved. It's not her fault he turned out to be a dithering idiot. I mean, on "Sunset Beach" they managed to make Meg and Maria both totally sweet, and they even found another man for -- wait, where are you all going?

Well, it is a screwball comedy, after all, so I should lighten up. And it's got all you need for one of those. There's an array of wacky bit characters, including a flustered hotel clerk (Grant: "Look, I came here with my wife, and my bride -- my wife -- look, I won't bore you with details." Clerk: "I won't be bored"), a skeptical insurance agent, the aforementioned shrink, and a long-suffering judge ("I'd like to get home and tell my wife. She thinks all my cases are boring"). Plus impersonators, fake Southern accents and a leopard-print robe. Someone even falls in the pool. If it is high jinks you want, they are here!

Still, I defy anyone to sleep after this closing shot:

Yoicks! Maybe you should've gone with the slasher film.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon