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The screwball comedy craze was dying out when Loretta Young and David Niven teamed for Eternally Yours (1939), a spritely farce about a magician so in love with touring he almost turns his wife into a bigamist. Young is beautiful and witty as the wife/assistant who pulls a real disappearing act over her husband's refusal to settle down. She heads to Reno for a divorce, not realizing she forgot to dot all the "I"s and cross all the "T"s in the contract, and remarries an old flame (Broderick Crawford). Meanwhile, Niven is hot on the honeymooners' trail, trying to win back his not-quite-divorced wife.
Young had just left 20th Century-Fox, having followed studio head Darryl F. Zanuck there after he left Warner Bros. in 1933 to found 20th Century Pictures. Although she had been one of his first big female stars, they had quarreled in recent years over roles, pay and even costumes (he accused her of appropriating wardrobe items from some of her films). Her complaints got her labeled "difficult," which led to problems of finding decent roles right away. Fortunately, independent producer Walter Wanger, with whom she had worked on Shanghai in 1935, wanted to utilize more of the footage he had shot while touring the globe. Much of it had already been used in Trade Winds (1938), but he had so much left over, he needed to produce another globe-trotting picture.
Originally, Wanger had planned to film Sacha Guitry's 1917 play L'illusioniste, but the Production Code Administration deemed it too sexual. As writers Gene Towne and G. Graham Baker labored to tone it down, they made so many changes Wanger eventually billed the film as an original screenplay. In particular, the writers had to bend over backwards to come up with ways to keep Young from consummating her marriage to Crawford so she would not, in fact, become a bigamist. The film was still surprisingly risqu for the late '30s. So was one of Young's outfits. For her part in Niven's disappearing act, she insisted a double take her place because she refused to wear the revealing costume supplied.
For Young's leading man, Wanger borrowed David Niven from Samuel Goldwyn, who had been bringing the young British actor along in supporting roles since 1935. He had, in fact, appeared with Young twice before, in Four Men and a Prayer and Three Blind Mice (both 1938), but only in smaller roles. He had lost her to Richard Greene in the first, and Joel McCrea in the second. Eternally Yours would mark their first appearance as co-stars and, in fact, Niven's first leading role. The two would prove a genial pair on screen and would reteam as husband and wife in The Bishop's Wife (1947). Wanger also signed an impressive supporting cast, with Hugh Herbert as Niven's valet, Billie Burke as Young's aunt, C. Aubrey Smith as her uncle, Eve Arden as her wise-cracking best friend and Raymond Walburn and Zasu Pitts as Crawford's boss and the boss's wife. With Young, Niven and Crawford in the cast, Eternally Yours also featured three future Oscar®-winners at a time when nobody in Hollywood would have predicted such honors for any of them.
Wanger signed Tay Garnett, who had just helmed Trade Winds, to direct. He had also worked with Young previously on Love Is News (1937) and was known for his fast-paced staging and facility with comedy. He even turned in a cameo appearance as an airplane pilot during one of Niven's stunts. Although shot mostly in Hollywood, Eternally Yours achieved the distinction of being the first Hollywood feature with scenes set at the 1939 New York World Fair, where Niven performs one of his most daredevil escapes over the Lagoon of Nations.
Although critics considered Eternally Yours amusing and even singled out supporting players Herbert, Smith, Walburn and Pitts in some cases, they also had problems with the plot machinations. Writing for the New York Times, Frank Nugent complained that with its globe-trotting plot "the conjugal problems eventually became so inextricably mixed with geography that we felt as battered as an old trunk..." He was also one of several reviewers to wonder if the leading couple, one of whom longs for travel and stardom while the other dreams of domesticity, might actually be better off divorced. Such an ending would have been unthinkable in Hollywood under the Production Code, however, so the stars predictably reunite, though many in the audience may be taking odds on how long they can stay together.
Producer: Tay Garnett, Walter Wanger
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Gene Towne, C. Graham Baker
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Music Score: Werner Janssen
Cast: Loretta Young (Anita Halstead), David Niven (Tony, aka The Great Arturo), Hugh Herbert (Benton), Billie Burke (Aunt Abby), C. Aubrey Smith (Bishop Peabody), Raymond Walburn (Mr. Harley Bingham), Zasu Pitts (Mrs. Cary Bingham), Broderick Crawford (Don Burns), Virginia Field (Lola de Vere), Eve Arden (Gloria), Ralph Graves (Mr. Morrisey), Granville Bates (Ship Captain), Hillary Brooke (Blonde on Stage), Bess Flowers (Nightclub Extra), Tay Garnett (Pilot).
by Frank Miller