Judge Sandra Dozier reminds you that only in fiction would a character have no trouble at all choosing between Randolph Scott and Cary Grant.
A funny thing happens to Nick Arden on his way to the honeymoon suite.
With the release of The Cary Grant Signature Collection (a box set featuring five of his movies) on DVD, the 1940 classic My Favorite Wife gets a new print and new packaging. This movie is notable for the re-teaming of stars Grant and Irene Dunne, who starred in two previous films, including the popular The Awful Truth. Garson Kanin (Bachelor Mother) directs.
Facts of the Case
Nick Arden (Cary Grant) is a successful lawyer and the proud father of two great kids. What he lacks is a wife, at least at the beginning of My Favorite Wife. His true love Ellen (Irene Dunne) was lost at sea seven years ago, and his current fiancée Bianca (Gail Patrick) is pushy and demanding, but he finds himself agreeing to propose to her, and they are married.
Once off to the honeymoon, Ellen appears at the home they shared, surprising her former mother-in-law. It seems she survived the shipwreck and lived for seven years on an island. After being picked up by a Portuguese freighter that had gone off course, her first thought on returning was to find her family. When she learns that Nick has remarried, she is determined to win him back and rebuild their happy home.
Of course, screwball comedy would not be screwball without a good helping of monkey wrenches thrown into the works. Nick is shocked into incoherence by her return and has a hard time communicating the situation to Bianca, who tends to break down crying at any hint of trouble. Then there's the problem of "Adam" (Randolph Scott), whom Nick discovers spent the whole seven years with Ellen (who called herself "Eve") on the island. Furious and suspicious, he vows to find Adam and get to the bottom of the situation.
Teaming up for the third time with spunky Irene Dunne, Grant is able to relax and allow himself to be just as goofy as he is suave in this comedy. Pretty much anything that can go wrong does go wrong, including a nasty case of prideful denial that the character of Nick takes on when he suspects his wife of cozying up to the hunky and athletic Adam.
There are several moments in this movie that are just laugh-out-loud hilarious, and most of them have to do with body language more than dialogue. Toward the end of the movie, watching Grant try to insinuate himself into a weekend getaway with Ellen and the kids is both sweet and funny. He grumbles, pulls his coat up against the chill, tells a series of lies about the roads and phone lines being out, and uses subliminal body language to convince her to let him stay. When lying about the phone line outage, he proclaims, "We probably won't be able to use the phone lines until morning!" and when the phone rings, he says in perfect deadpan, "It's fixed!"
I also got a kick out of watching him act intimidated by the handsome Adam (Randolph Scott, one of the few men in Hollywood who could give Grant a run for his money). At one point, Adam suggests a cab and Nick says, "Do you ride in cabs, or do you just trot alongside?"—only Grant knows how to deliver that line for maximum belly laughs.
Irene Dunne is charming as his wife. She has a knack for playing strong yet vulnerable women, and anyone watching can understand why she would be desirable to any successful man. If the mischievous twinkle in her eye doesn't do it, her elegance and ability to wear a hat better than anyone else will. She's a perfect foil for the fussy Grant, and they are gold together on screen. When Ellen assumes the part of an old family friend upon learning that Nick hasn't told Bianca about the situation, she puts on a Southern accent and starts firing verbal undercuts at both Bianca and Nick; however, only Nick catches them, as evidenced by his strained glances and jerky body language. It's hilarious to watch, and Patrick plays the scene well, breezily unaware of the subtext and annoyed at everyone around her.
By all accounts, the print for this version of My Favorite Wife is far superior to anything seen on television or VHS before. Indeed, it was digitally remastered for the DVD release, and it is clear enough that you can see every bead of water on Dunne's face after she gets out of the shower. However, it is still far from pristine—there are noticeable defects in the print, the image is slightly soft, and there is some dark border creeping during some of the indoor scenes. However, the grayscale colors are pleasantly deep and rich, and there is a lot of detail in the print, so it's relatively easy to overlook any defects during viewing. The mono soundtrack holds up well and is divided into a 2.0 channel nicely for this presentation, with very little hissing or popping (this is mostly only noticed at higher volume).
Included on the DVD is a short film with Robert Benchley called "Home Movies"—it has nothing to do with the film, but fans who enjoy Benchley's dry humor will enjoy this treat. The extra I enjoyed the most was the Screen Director's Playhouse 1950 radio production of "My Favorite Wife," which featured Grant and Dunne and was produced by Leo McCarey. At one hour, the story is condensed and rearranged, with some of the supporting roles (such as the judge and the hotel manager) getting a bit more prominence and beefing up the laughs. It's funny stuff, and the hotel manager had me in stitches. "Mr. Arden, I don't want to be prissy about this…" he says, deadpan, as he tries to sort out who is married to who. The only problem with this extra is that the hiss of the record is clearly audible and there appear to be a few skips, but it's well worth a listen. As usual for preserved broadcasts, the commercials and promotional spots are included, and there's a funny little skit with Bob Hope about halfway through that adds to the fun.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As you might suspect, there are enough credibility holes in this story for it to resemble Swiss cheese. The children are far too welcoming and accepting of this strange lady as their mother, few modern-day audiences would believe that Ellen would spend seven years on an island with Randolph Scott and remain true (just watching him flip around on the gymnastics rings makes the hair on my arms stand up), and the legal dilemma of a dead woman returning to civilization is solved far too easily, but none of this really matters. The audience is asked to—no, expected to—suspend their disbelief and enjoy the antics of the people in the story. Once this is accomplished, the viewer can expect a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
At around $15.00, My Favorite Wife is a nicely priced value for such a delightful movie. With a new transfer and a well-paced story, it's a must for any collector of Grant or Dunne movies, and a great example of slapstick comedy. Grant and Dunne are definitely having fun with their roles, and that translates to excellent performances on screen.
The court dismisses any charges of bigamy, considering how much Grant and Dunne made us laugh, just as long as everything is right here in the brief. Court adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Home Movies" Short with Robert Benchley
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