Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Screwball Divorce

One of the repeated themes of the old Black and Whites was the divorced or alienated couple that gets back together again ("comedies of remarriage," Stanley Cavell called such films). The cynic could view these movies as pure propaganda from a less enlightened age, but that cynical view ignores the humane spirit of the movies themselves and (worse still) ignores the sheer fun that they are. These comedies—for most of them are comedies; the broken marriage plot seems to have operated most comfortably as a subgenre of the classic screwball comedy—run the gamut from the wordy shenanigans of His Girl Friday to the more mellow and introspective The Bishop's Wife.

I said "more mellow."

These "comedies of remarriage" featured a range of stars including Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Celeste Holm, Carol Lombard, Joel McCrea, Gregory Peck, and James Stewart; but the crown of the CORs seems to have gone to Cary Grant (see the previous post on An Affair to Remember). He starred in a number of films in the genre, including The Grass is Greener (1960, again opposite Deborah Kerr, with Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons), The Awful Truth (1937, opposite Irene Dunne—who had played Kerr's role in the original version of An Affair), My Favorite Wife (1940, again with Dunne) and The Philadelphia Story (also 1940), where he teamed up with Katherine Hepburn.

Of these four, The Philadelphia Story is undoubtedly the best and deserves the fuller treatment which it will receive in "Thrice-Told Tales, Part 2"; but I can't resist first putting in a pitch for My Favorite Wife. I'll let the following plot summary, courtesy of Wikipedia, explain.

After seven years, lawyer Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne), missing since her ship was lost, declared legally dead so he can marry Bianca (Gail Patrick). It turns out however that Ellen was merely shipwrecked on a deserted island, and has been rescued. ...

When Ellen tracks [Nick] down before his honeymoon night, he is at a loss as to how to break the news to Bianca ...

[who] becomes frustrated by Nick's odd behavior (especially the non-consummation of their marriage) and calls in a psychiatrist ...

Further complications ensue when an insurance adjuster (Hugh O'Connell) mentions to Nick a rumor that Ellen was not alone on the island, but had the company of a Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott) and that they called each other "Adam" and "Eve". When Nick confronts Ellen, she recruits a mousy shoe salesman ... to pretend to be Stephen, but Nick has already tracked the real, appallingly virile and handsome Stephen down.

Oh dear. What makes this all the funnier (as if Dunne and Grant weren't already two of the best screwball actors to begin with) is Randolph Scott's deadpan turn as "the real, appallingly virile and handsome Stephen." Scott was known for his serious roles—the grave-faced hero or heavy in the Western or war movie. In fact, he became so well known for playing those roles that his persona was spoofed in Mel Brooks' 1974 parody Blazing Saddles. Sheriff Bart, trying to rally his unenthusiastic townspeople to support him in protecting their homes, issues the stinging rebuke, "You'd do it for Randolph Scott!" The townspeople, hats on their hearts, echo fervently: "Randolph Scott!" Cue trumpets. Now that is a legacy.

Scott's parody of himself as an upright, uptight, tough vegetarian outdoors-man is hard to resist. He's so deliciously out of place in a screwball comedy that only a husband with the miniscule cerebral capacity of Cary Grant could mistake him for a rival—though to be sure, it is of such mistakes that screwball comedies are made.

Despite the obtuseness and the wavering, Grant's Nick Arden comes off as a believable and sympathetic human being—more so than his passive earl in The Grass is Greener or his hypocritically jealous husband in The Awful Truth. Dunne also has a more likeable character to play than she'd had in Truth: Ellen's pain at her husband's suspicions is almost palpable, whereas Lucy's hurt hardly seemed to rise much above the level of petulance. Perhaps it is the script; perhaps it is the fact that Dunne was three years older and had worked with Grant in a similar role. Then again, perhaps it is because the Ardens of My Favorite Wife have children (at 6:11)—children mostly off-scene, but children still. The Warriners of Truth are childless, spoiled, and irresponsible: one feels that their childlessness is no accident, but a sign of their immaturity. It can't be a coincidence that the initial estrangement of the Warriners is caused by a trifling misunderstanding, whereas it took a plane accident and seven years' separation to divide the Ardens.

It would be an interesting exercise, as well as darn good entertainment, to watch The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife back-to-back. While it isn't a remake of the earlier film, Wife is clearly an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Grant and Dunne and the success of the earlier movie. It does more than succeed. At the risk of spoiling the movie (can you really spoil an ending if the middle's not given?) I submit to you here the very similar but subtly distinct conclusions of Truth (see at 7:46 to end) and Wife (start at 6:08 and finish with this). Watch them yourself and tell me which of the two is better art, and which couple of the two will be happy.


  1. Nice! Some movies I must watch.

  2. Haven't seen them already? Shame! ;)

  3. I especially love "Thanks for the Memories," which provided its star, Bob Hope, with his theme song.