Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wesley Ruggles | Too Many Husbands

sharing the dance
by Douglas Messerli

Claude Binyon (screenplay, based on the play, Home and Beauty, by W. Somerset Maugham, Wesley Ruggles (director) Too Many Husbands / 1940

Based on a 1919 play by W. Somerset Maugham, Wesley Ruggles’ 1940 film Too Many Husbands is a variation of the Garson Kanin film of the very same year, My Favorite Wife. While the later film certainly is more adventuresome in its sexual innuendos (see My Year 2003) Ruggles’ work still manages to hoodwink the dreaded Hays Code quite nicely by centering its focus on a confused woman unable to select between her two husbands, present and past.

      Poor Vicky Lowndes (the always marvelous comic Jean Arthur) is presented as a sort of happily married woman, attempting to lure her business-centered husband, publisher Henry Lowndes (the always dashing Melvyn Douglas) away from his office—if only for lunch. Although vaguely happy with their relationship, he is certainly inattentive, just as, apparently, was her former husband, Bill Cardew (Fred MacMurray) who, after a wonderful honeymoon, abandoned his new wife for an adventuresome journey, which ended in his death by drowning.

     Bill was the publishing partner of Henry—“partner” being a work of great significance in this sexually closeted work—and on the day in which we first encounter the survivor, Henry is undergoing his own kind of divorce, a year after Bill’s death, as he somewhat nervously removes Cardew’s name from the company’s door and attempts to send a memo—with a sense of great guilt and consternation—explaining, or at least expressing to his secretary his decision. The chaos of Cardew’s old office, where new manuscripts and books have been stored quite clearly represents Henry’s state of mind. It too has been kept as a kind of closet of undefined desires—unread books and manuscripts—wherein he rediscovers a honeymoon picture of Bill and Vicky, ripping it up. In terms of the story, that act is an expression of his jealousy of Vicky, but any old queer theorist might easily read the act as a jealously of his former “partner” as well.

     Too Many Husbands charts even stranger territory when Henry’s loyal secretary, Gertrude (Dorothy Peterson) admits to Vicky that she is about to marry a man whom she does not love. When asked why, she explains that the only men she every loved were Vicky’s two husbands, with whom she had fantasized the same relationship which Vicky had experienced. In short, she reveals in her heterosexual fantasies a kind covert lesbian kinship with the real wife of these two men, a kind of focused identification with the “other” woman—surely one of the most kinky relationships ever represented in a otherwise standard Hollywood film. Vicky, even more oddly is sympathetic and even fascinated by this odd tale.

     But this Hollywood work gets even stranger when the “dead” husband finally shows up and neither his ex-wife nor his ex-partner dares to tell him of their re-aligned relationships. By the time Vicky and Henry finally do reveal to Bill the radical changes that have occurred after his “death,” Vicky has completely re-conceived the problem, perceiving herself—for the first time—at the center of her previously inattentive husband’s universe. Together, the two men combine to make up the perfect “husband” she has always sought: an athletic adventurer and an urbane and sensitive lover. How might she possibly chose between these two—despite the demands of her moralistically confounded father, George (Henry Davenport). Since neither will abandon their fort—the apartment they both claim as their own—Vicky demands they share the guestroom, insisting that her current husband, Henry, come up with the former husband’s dressing robe, which, he admits (I’m not making this up!) he has hidden in the back of their closet!

     The two men, in defiance of one another, keep to their conjugal bed—they are after all both “married,” through their wife, to one another. When one finally escapes in the middle of the night to purr out his love for Vicky, his words fall upon the ears of the father, who has replaced his daughter in her bed—another symbolically strange twist.

     The following morning Henry awakens to discover Bill at the breakfast table next to Vicky—his former partner dressed in Henry’s suit which Vicky has cheerfully loaned him, a metaphor that hints that the two have now been bodily wed, fitting nicely into one another’s skins.

     After a series of further misadventures, including private meetings with Vicky and each man and a paper-drawing challenge (interestingly, neither man ever suggests any physical violence against the other) wherein the one who picks the paper with a cross will win the “bride,” neither man has gained the upper hand. Although Henry appears to win the draw, it is revealed he has cheated, both papers being blank. Accordingly the two men continue to romance their “wife” at their favorite restaurant, Franks, each man attempting to catch Vicky up into a frenetic dance, which ends with all three joyfully sharing the experience.

      The film seemed particularly interesting to view, coming immediately after the Fassbinder film, Gods of the Plague, I had just the day before witnessed, wherein the three central characters share in a ménage à tois. Of course, such relationships have been at the heart of many books and films throughout the ages, but the fact that two major Hollywood films, Too Many Husbands and My Favorite Wife, appeared in the same year, might say something about the fifth decade of the last century. My only problem with Ruggle’s version was that he could apparently never quite “let go,” allowing his film to truly enjoy the sexual implications it suggested, whereas Cary Grant’s infatuation with the “other” man was something with which director Kanin utterly reveled in revealing—even if his audiences might not readily perceive it as sexual.

Los Angeles, April 30, 2013

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