My Favorite Wife Highlights The Strengths Of Women In Screwball Comedy
By Alex Cranz
In 1940 the screwball comedy was on its way out. There was war in Europe and Americans knew it was only a matter of time before it reached their doorsteps as well. People were nervous. By the end of the war the breezy screwball comedy would be all but dead. It’s best actresses and actors would retire or move onto “serious” dramas. The devil may care sensibility of the genre would be rejected by its audience.
But there was still a little time. And Leo McCarey, one of the most astute men in Hollywood (also a major jerk later in life) knew that if you got Irene Dunne and Cary Grant together again you could make some magic. McCarey had previously worked with them on the insanely popular The Awful Truth but for My Favorite Wife he had another idea. At Columbia Jean Arthur and Fred MacMurray were adapting the play Too Many Husbands, about a woman who marries only to find her first husband is still alive.
McCarey decided to flip the tables. He put the wife out to sea and left the husband holding the baggage. It was a smart move. Largely because he had Dunne and Grant in his corner. Claiming the film was loosely based on Enoch Arden he hired the playwriting team Bella and Samuel Spewack to pen what would be an Oscar-nominated script, and Garson Kanin direct. Then he let loose his actors and watched them feed on a story that is an oddly compelling blend of pathos and slapstick.
Picture it: Irene Dunne was stuck on a deserted island for seven years. She comes home and travels to the hotel where she and her husband shared their honeymoon many years before. She looks up from her table. She’s hurt. Her agony is written plainly on her face. Like Odysseus before her she has experienced an epic journey and come home to find her world irrevocably changed. Her children think her dead and do not know her and her husband, the man she promised to love and cherish has been a fickle Penelope and just married another.
Then he enters the room. He’s Cary Grant. Equal parts dramatic powerhouse and comedy superstar. He is thunderstruck by the sight of his wife, alive and quiet at a barroom table. Wordlessly they move towards one another. The camera focus turns soft to romanticize them both and the music swells accordingly. They embrace. Kiss. It is a reunion they have both been desperate for.
And we’re only fifteen minutes into the film. Now he has to tell his second wife their marriage is bunk and she has to tell him she spent seven years naked and alone on an island with Randolph Scott in his prime. What is a story dripping with pathos, also finds time to be a full on screwball comedy.
And there at the center of it all is Irene Dunne. She’s patient with her husband. Yes, it’s frustrating that he can’t seem to tell his new wife about her, but she gets it. It’s all so absurd that of COURSE he’d have trouble. She finds the humor in it and mines it mercilessly. When he comes home with a still blissfully unaware new wife she aptly pretends to be an old friend. She puts on a heavy Kentucky accent and teases him all through dinner–to his delight and the new wife’s irritation.
When he figures out she’s been on an island with RANDOLPH SCOTT she tries to hide it. Not because she’s ashamed but because she knows her husband can be a dope. So she hires a little man to pretend to be her island buddy and when she’s found out she doesn’t even bother to apologize, just giggles at the idea of that funny little man pretending to be Randolph Scott.
She never gets jealous. Or screechy. She’s a smooth and confident operator content with watching how things play out. Just below the surface there’s the worry. The vague concern that nothing will ever be the same. That she’ll lose her children and her husband, but this is Irene Dunne folks. She doesn’t REALLY have anything to worry about.
She highlights everything that’s perfect about a traditional screwball comedy heroine. Nowadays a comedy heroine must be neurotic to the extreme. She must be driven down by worry and always impossibly insecure about where she stands with others–especially men. She must be humiliated often or we can’t empathize with her. Not Irene Dunne. She could honestly not care. She knows who she is and where she’s going.
The plot of My Favorite Wife is remarkably sitcomish. The problems arise because people are reluctant to be honest, but with Dunne and Grant at the center of things it always seems to rise above the simple trappings. It helps that they have Randolph Scott and Gail Patrick as romantic foils. Patrick made a career out of playing “the other woman.” She’s always the slightly less incandescent one. The less affable one. Here she’s a sexually frustrated woman wondering why her husband won’t sleep with her. She never hits the whiny zone, though she’s also never allowed to be as fun as Dunne.
And Scott. Hoo boy. There’s a scene with him in a bathing suit and Cary Grant watching him that is incredibly homoerotic–even as cartoonish music plays. Later when Grant leans back in his chair and imagines Scott in his head you’ll instantly remember all those rumors of them being lovers when they lived together and always went swimming together.
It isn’t intentional of course. It’s just one man being cowed by the physical perfection of another, but it is also awfully amusing. Still Scott’s perfect straight man and Grant’s loveable idiot cannot compare to Dunne. She is perfection in this film. A perfect heroine, a perfect wife, and a perfect representation of what a screwball comedienne must be. Nuanced. Relatable. But honestly not giving a f*ck what anyone else thinks.