Wife, Husband and Friend
Loretta Young, Warner Baxter
US DVD: 19 Feb 2013
Oh, Men! Oh, Women!
David Niven, Barbara Rush
Nunnally Johnson is among the most celebrated and prolific writers of classic Hollywood. He often produced his own scripts as well as others’ scripts, working with such directors as John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath) and Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window). After a career at Fox, he became an independent producer when he co-founded International Pictures, which eventually merged with Universal. Then he returned to Fox and directed several movies, mostly famously The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Three Faces of Eve. He finished his career by going back to writing only, for example The World of Henry Orient, based on his daughter’s novel.
Two minor marital comedies issued on demand from Fox Cinema Archives show that he liked to write arguments between men and women that get surprisingly serious under the light veneer. In keeping with sexist standards, the women in these bouts are typically flighty, illogical, and “feminine” to the point of being tiresome, and yet the blustering men eventually realize they have a point and need to stop blustering.
The premise of Wife, Husband and Friend (1939) is that pampered, old-money wifey (Loretta Young, charming even when her character isn’t) feels stifled in her desire to sing classically on stage—cue many jokes about how boring and insufferable is all this arty longhair music to normal guys. Her by-his-bootstraps, streetwise, contractor husband (how did they get married?) tries to put his foot down but thinks she’ll get it out of her system, since she’s only mediocre.
The interesting twist, which we really don’t see coming (spoiler! spoiler!), is that hubby (Warner Baxter) turns out to have the opera-quality voice, and this introduces ideas of competition as well as possibly adulterous temptation provided by calculating Binnie Barnes as the professional singer who discovers him.
There’s lots of bitter comedy, common to the era, about spousal abuse and humiliation, ranging from a friend (Eugene Pallette) who cheerfully admits to belting his wife “right in the mouth” to an actual attack by an infuriated Young upon Baxter. That’s not so hilarious today, of course, but it’s culturally revealing, as men lament the idea of not being in charge of their marriage and adopt various postures of defeat and desperation before horse-faced harridans. Baxter’s climactic debut at the opera actually is funny, however. Johnson reworked the whole thing in a postwar remake ten years later, Everybody Does It, which has a higher reputation.
A widescreen color bauble of two decades later, Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957) toys with the modern trope of psychoanalysis. David Niven plays a doctor who pays no attention to his tedious patients, all neurotic unsatisfied women except for Tony Randall (his film debut) as an outright wacko. Already patently Randall-esque, his impossible character provides the only bits of this movie that still seem funny, if any of it did.
Too bad so much time is wasted on Niven’s arguments with willfully contradictory fiancée Barbara Rush, who likes him for being so smart and correct and then berates him for not cutting loose sometimes, then berates him for the opposite and says she doesn’t care what he says to her (like calling her stupid) as long as he’s sorry later. Both characters are so thin and grating that few viewers will care if they get married or think it has a chance.
Time is also spent on the “serious” couple, Ginger Rogers and actor hubby Dan Dailey. She’s a tiresomely theatrical and whining caricature (purportedly humorous) of the wife who feels taken for granted as a useless decoration, someone who can be easily replaced if she dies, someone who identifies with Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Yet these are real issues, and Dailey, after getting drunk for the first time in years and delivering his own confused opinion of Ibsen, stumbles almost accidentally on real insights such as the link between his wife’s dissatisfactions and upper-middle-class milieu (“Because we can buy things?”). Is the average ticket-buyer supposed to feel superior to this mockery of elite types, or is it supposed to hit home? Probably a little of both.
Dailey’s eventually guided to the idea, espoused in many a pop song from Peggy Lee to Aretha Franklin, that you’ve got to treat your wife like you’re still courting her, and then supposedly she won’t feel any empty maw gaping in her undirected life. Although this idea isn’t totally unsound as a daily practice, it’s mighty convenient as a cure for ennui in this Broadway/Hollywood moment between a poorly translated Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, whose Feminine Mystique wouldn’t explode for another six years. The boys are wrestling gamely and defensively with something in the air and for now can only respond in terms of Ibsen. Dailey is convinced of the need to re-spark the romance when the doc drops a line from Congreve, another safely dead literary authority. We’ll see how that works, and meanwhile he’s also discovered the usefulness of tippling with his wife before noon; good thing he fell off that wagon.
Sex is used as a tease in the poster on the box: “It’s all about You-Know-What”. Oh no it’s not. The only character who mentions sex and wants to talk about it is Randall. The shrink keeps cutting the topic off because he doesn’t want to hear his wife’s history. This same doctor is described by a friend as “inexperienced”. Rush expresses surprise, and the friend clarifies “In marriage, I mean.”
When the doc tells a travel agent (perenially prissy Franklin Pangborn) that he and Rush aren’t married although they’re booked for the same room, it’s to lead him on for a moment before clarifying that they intend to get married aboard ship. He also misleads a client who calls him at 3 a.m. that he’s not alone, when we see clearly he is. So what messages are being sent about the good doctor’s experience vs. his pending bride’s? We can’t be sure. This is typical of the era’s confusing, who-knows-what-to-believe winks and smirks. It strains at the leash of sophistication until it strangles.
In truth, this isn’t a sex comedy or even what I call a No-Sex Comedy, by which I mean those stories where everyone threatens to have sex but nobody ever does. Based on Edward Chodorov’s Broadway play, this is a relentlessly stagey widescreen piece composed of long static scenes of people arguing on sets while pretending to be sophisticated. Strangely, producer-director Johnson doesn’t take a screenplay credit, nor is Chodorov’s name mentioned; it makes you wonder what happened there. There’s also a weird dissolve in the middle of a conversation at the 80-minute mark; it’s the clumsiest sign possible of re-editing.
Although more chic and modern in appearance than Wife, Husband and Friend, and while obviously attempting to grapple with signs of masculine and feminine unease in the fissures of consumer culture, this later film feels less appealing to today’s viewers than the earlier one. Mind you, Johnson was capable of writing outstanding comedies, such as Casanova Brown and Roxie Hart. It’s just that these ain’t those.