Dunne and Grant try to sort things out.
A product of the era of screwball comedies, My Favorite Wife (1940) tells the now stock tale of a man who believes his wife is dead and marries again, only to find wife number one is still alive. Surprisingly, this storyline came from a Tennyson poem, “Enoch Arden.” Read that again, because it’s probably the first and only time you’re going to find a glossy RKO production and Tennyson paired together.
Cary Grant plays Nicky Arden (what, you think Cary Grant is going to play someone named Enoch?), the man with too many wives and Irene Dunne plays missing-wife-come-home Ellen Arden. You can talk all you want about Katherine Hepburn and Grant or Hepburn and Tracy or any other so-called great comedy pairing, but none of them approach the brilliance of Grant and Dunne, two pros who could have performed miracles with the worst material, but generally benefited by having some of the best. Dunne once wrote that she and Grant, lifelong friends, had a lot of fun working together and she thought that came through on screen. She was absolutely right.
The movie also is blessed with a super supporting cast, including Gail Patrick as Bianca the beautiful but bad/snooty/mean second bride, who Nicky quickly confesses he never really loved anyway (poor Gail Patrick—so gorgeous but always cast on the losing end of audience’s affections); Granville Bates in a hilarious turn as the judge who gets to oversee the various marriages and annulments; Donald MacBride as a hotel clerk who is not sure whether he should be impressed or morally outraged by the goings-on between Grant and his wife-mistress juggle; and Randolph Scott as the man Grant discovers was shipwrecked on the island for seven years with Ellen, a genially lunkheaded stud whose poolside appearance has the ladies twittering, “Is that Johnny Weissmuller?!” The kids (Mary Lou Harrington and the immortal, tragic Scotty Beckett) are even better than the usual moppets pulled off the studio contract list, though they’re also working with better than average material. From the unintentional comedy file, this is definitely one of those movies that has one costume designer for the cast, and then one costume designer for the leading lady, who seems to be working completely on his own plan without regard for the rest of the film. Throughout, Dunne shows up in completely inappropriate outfits—in one scene, everyone else is wearing summer clothes poolside, yet she’s got on a suit with a fur cap and muff. You have to love that kind of grande dame-ness.
My Favorite Wife isn’t as good as The Awful Truth, but that Dunne and Grant classic sets a pretty high standard and falling a little short of that isn’t a crime; there still are laughs to be found here. The main problem with this film is just that sometimes the jokes are dragged out too long, particularly the numerous times where Grant tries and fails to inform wife 2 that wife 1 is back. They seem to think they’re showcasing Grant’s gift for physical comedy and the sort of fumbling hesitance we now associate with Hugh Grant; however, while he is indeed funny, the lengths of each bit pile on and I felt a bit like screaming, “It’s not that hard!” at some points. The getting back together scene at the end also drags a little, as it does in The Awful Truth. But these are minor quibbles.
Yesterday I was talking to a friend about what I should put at the top of my Netflix queue next. I couldn’t quite say what I was looking for, then finally said, “What I really want is another movie that’s just like My Favorite Wife or The Awful Truth.” If only there was such a thing.