He Married His Wife (Roy del Ruth, 1940)
[note: review originally published 14Feb2010]
I watched a number of comedies (some of them unintentional) this weekend, and of the lot, the best by far was He Married His Wife, a straight-up screwball comedy shot through with the patois of horse racing and featuring the considerable comedic talents of Joel McCrea, who in two years would become one of the most famous, and enduring, screwball heroes in history, Sully Sullivan (from Sullivan’s Travels). He Married His Wife is not as good a film as Sullivan’s Travels by most lights, but in some ways it’s even better, and it certainly does not deserve the obscurity into which it’s fallen over the years.
McCrea plays T. H. Randall, a thoroughbred owner who has recently gone through a divorce. His ex, Valerie (The Bad Seed‘s Nancy Kelly), dumped him because, she says, he’s married to his horses, not her. The opening scene is a fine setup in more ways than one; Randall and Valerie are out for a night of dinner and dancing (they’re still friends) until the cops show up and haul Randall off to jail for failure to pay alimony. A setup indeed. Vexed, Randall and his lawyer, Bill Carter (Roland Young, who will be forever remembered as Topper), hatch a scheme to get Valerie married off to Paul (Lyle Talbot, by far the most experienced member of the cast), a mutual friend who’s been in love with Valerie as long as any of them can remember. The perfect timing pops up when fellow horse owner Ethel Hilary (the delightful Mary Boland, between The Women and Pride and Prejudice) invite the whole company out to her country house, Duck Point (she offers us a number of different explanations for the name over the course of the film). All seems to be going well (and there’s a wonderful cameo by Elisha Cook, Jr. when we get to Duck Point) until a handsome stranger, Freddie (Cesar Romero), arrives and sweeps Valerie off her feet. But that’s not the only monkeywrench in the plans; Valerie, it seems, has never gotten over her love for Randall…
Sure, there are problems with the movie, but I think a lot of those problems have been overstated (especially the charge levelled at the film that divorced people can’t remain friends; preposterous). Yes, the ending is overly facile, but it might have been intended that way; Randall and Valerie’s problems aren’t over. (Telling you how the movie ends is not a spoiler; after all, the title does that.) It’s obvious. But for the moment, everyone’s happy. The destination isn’t the thing, in any case; it’s the journey, and the journey is fine indeed. This is a sex comedy before the swinging sixties, when no one could actually have sex on screen (and after the formation of the Hays Commission, when even intimating the stuff was toxic). And yes, it’s possible I overvalue innuendo in a culture that releases as many porn films as it does major Hollywood blockbusters every year (actually, probably more porn than legitimate theatrical releases; the MPAA reports there were 613 domestic movies released theatrically in 2008), but I find all the verbal jousting delightful, and Valerie, aside from her woe-is-me romantic troubles, is an interesting early example of a strong female character (note the scene, for example, where she stands up to Freddie’s going too far in his advances, which is intercut with one of the movie’s funniest set pieces). The residents of Duck Point are wonderful, the entire lot of them. Del Ruth is often remembered as a hack director today (he finished off his career making cheap B flicks like The Alligator People), but let’s not forget that he was the man behind the original film version of The Maltese Falcon, Broadway Melody of 1936, The Man Upstairs, and Bureau of Missing Persons, among many others, before making this. (And in the following years, he would direct Topper Returns and Du Barry Was a Lady.) You can choose to see He Married His Wife as a pothole in Del Ruth’s road, but consider that in 1940, he was quite a bankable director, he was making very big pictures, and he was tackling divorce, a subject that was relatively old hat in Hollywood, but still shocking to the rest of the country. (For that matter, the idea of a strong female lead plays the same way. Hollywood already had Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis. Who’d they have in Ottumwa?) There’s a lot to think about here. I’m not at all surprised this movie is on Pauline Kael’s list of guilty pleasures. A very funny film that deserves to be rediscovered. *** ½