While I originally planned only three posts on screwballs, there were so many films to watch for the early 1940s, and the first few were so common in theme, I decided to add one more installment to this series, on comedies of remarriage. In my previous post, which covered the years from 1935-1939, just one film I looked at belonged to this subgenre, The Awful Truth. However, in just the two years of 1940 and 1941, at least seven films do.
What is the comedy of remarriage? Well, unlike traditional comedies, which usually end in marriage, the comedy of remarriage starts off with a married couple who, for whatever reason, separate or are separated at the beginning of the film. Of course, this reversal of the traditional comedy plot fits nicely into the basic framework and crazy world of the screwball, with the added advantage of being able to presume a sexual relationship while still remaining within the confines of the Production Code, which frowned on adultery and illicit sex.
In the case of The Awful Truth, the two leads, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, divorce on screen upon Dunne’s suspicion of Grant’s (implied) shenanigans, coupled with his mistrust of her own seemingly innocent relationship with her music teacher. After the divorce, Dunne takes up with Ralph Bellamy, who plays a somewhat dim businessman from Oklahoma, a role which in the future will come to be known as the “Ralph Bellamy Character” (RBC)—the naïve boyfriend the audience knows has no chance of triumphing over the male lead. Divorce will occur in the majority of these comedies of remarriage, although disappearance (and presumed death) makes a strong showing.
The first of these films to appear in the 1940s is His Girl Friday (1940), directed by Howard Hawks. This film, perhaps the epitome of screwball comedy, is a remake of The Front Page (1931), but with a twist: the character of Hildy, the star reporter, is a woman. In this way, the film is much more of the traditional “battle of the sexes” one finds in the best screwballs, although much less romantic in nature than others. The two leads, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, are sheer perfection, delivering the fast-paced dialogue with ease. However, one of the best lines is the in-joke about the RBC, here played by none other than Ralph Bellamy himself.
—There’s a guy waiting in a taxi in front of the criminal courts building. His name is Bruce Baldwin.
—What does he look like?
—He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy.
—Walter Burns (Cary Grant) describes the RBC to a tee in His Girl Friday.
Too Many Husbands (1940), directed by Wesley Ruggles, is the first of the comedies on this list to use disappearance as a catalyst. Here, Fred MacMurray plays an adventurous husband lost at sea whose “widow” (Jean Arthur) marries his former business partner (Melvyn Douglas). While this film is certainly an improvement on Ruggles’ muddled I Met Him in Paris (1937), it pales in comparison to the similarly themed My Favorite Wife (1940) released just two months later. One flaw is that Arthur seems so evenly torn between her two husbands—having been married to each person, would she really not have any idea who she would choose? She doesn’t even seem capable of presenting the pros and cons of either choice. From the audience perspective, this indecision works better with a dating love triangle, since there are so many unknowns, but with husbands it just doesn’t work as well. Note: Jazz fans may want to watch this for the lovely use of the “Mon homme”/“My Man” musical cues.
The bizarreness of watching these films all in a row reached a peak with My Favorite Wife, directed by Garson Kanin. In addition to repeating an extremely similar plot to the recently viewed Too Many Husbands (Irene Dunne returns to Cary Grant after being shipwrecked on a tropical island with TBC Randolph Scott), Grant’s second wife is played by Gail Patrick, who also played the other woman in The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940), which I watched right before this one and which I’ll report on next time. And of course, we have already seen Cary Grant split and get back together with Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. So, although I really like this film, this is when I began to think I had reached my screwball saturation point.
Thankfully, my next film was another Powell-Loy adventure. I Love You Again (1940), directed by W.S. Van Dyke of The Thin Man, introduces an interesting, if complicated, twist to the divorce/disappearance plot: amnesia. William Powell plays an uptight businessman who gets hit on the head while rescuing someone at sea and thereby remembers his former life as a con man. Suspecting his “identity” for the past decade is a wealthy man, he continues the portrayal once the boat docks, especially when he sees “his” beautiful wife (Myrna Loy) meet the ship. What he doesn’t realize at first is that she is on the verge of divorcing her cheap husband for another man. When he also discovers he is not as rich as he suspected, he decides to swindle the leading citizens of the town in a land deal. I always enjoy a good caper and this film is no different.
I’ve already written about how my love for The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor, is a bit tempered by the fact that I saw and loved the musical version (High Society, with songs by Cole Porter) first. However, that takes nothing away from the fact that it is a great film, and a prime example of the comedy of remarriage. Katharine Hepburn plays a Main Line socialite about to marry a not-quite-of-her-class businessman after having divorced Cary Grant years before; Jimmy Stewart plays a reporter who is there to cover her wedding for the tabloids (in a side blackmail plot). While her mother and sister prefer ex-husband Grant (duh!), Hepburn finds herself attracted to the humble reporter played by Stewart. Of course, that the plot revolves around drunkenness only enhances its appeal for me. If you need further convincing, it won two Academy Awards out of six nominations, one for Stewart and one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
As I said in my post on Hitchcock’s vintage Hollywood period, I believe that Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery, is vastly underrated, but that is especially true when you compare it to many screwballs. The catalyst of the plot is that Lombard (Ann) and Montgomery (David) separately discover their marriage isn’t legal, after having recently fought. While Ann tries to break away, and is pursued by Jeff (in the popular TBC role of “husband’s business partner”), David tries to win her back. While Hitchcock’s take on the screwball can be clunky at times, it’s quite charming.
—I guess she’s changed some huh?
—Well, she’s… changed a little.
—She once chased a dogcatcher half a mile with a baseball bat.
—Well, she hasn’t changed as much as you think.
—Robert Montgomery catches up with an old friend in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
The last comedy of remarriage in this series is another Powell-Loy picture, Love Crazy (1941), directed by Jack Conway. Here Powell and Loy play a couple on the eve of their fourth wedding anniversary when Loy’s mother arrives unexpectedly to set the plot in motion. A broken elevator leads Powell to run into an ex-girlfriend who lives in the apartment below and his mother-in-law to plant a seed of doubt about the encounter into her daughter’s mind. After a ridiculous series of events lead Loy to pursue divorce, Powell decides on a last-ditch effort to delay the proceedings: he will pretend to be insane. Naturally, this leads to unforeseen consequences and hilarity ensues.
If you haven’t seen any of these, I highly recommended checking out at least His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. And stay tuned until next time for one of my favorite comedies of remarriage still to come, The Palm Beach Story (1942) by Preston Sturges.
Screwball Filmography: Part III
His Girl Friday (1940)
Too Many Husbands (1940)
My Favorite Wife (1940)
I Love You Again (1940)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Love Crazy (1941)
For previous posts in this Screwball 101 series, click below:
March Madcapness: Introduction to Screwballs
Early Screwballs and The Lubitsch Touch
1930s Screwball Classics and Forgotten Films
For the next post in this series, see 1940s Screwballs: The Rise of Preston Sturges.