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Apparently, having "too many husbands" has long been considered a filmable dilemma; there have been several movies with this title, released respectively in 1914, 1918, 1931, 1938 - but none of them related to this particular story. This film, also known as "Wesley Ruggles' Too Many Husbands" (1940) after its director, is actually based on a play by Somerset Maugham that ran in London and on Broadway in 1919. The story follows Jean Arthur's dilemma as her husband, Fred MacMurray, believed to be dead in a boating accident, unexpectedly returns after she remarries his old friend and business partner, played by Melvyn Douglas.
Sound familiar? It should. It's a variation on the 1864 poem "Enoch Arden" by Tennyson about a sailor lost at sea who returns years later to find his wife remarried to his childhood friend. The original story was filmed in 1915 with Lillian Gish, following Tennyson's more tragic tone, but later Hollywood versions preferred to find humor in the tale. A couple of months after Too Many Husbands was released by Columbia, RKO put out a movie the same year that was more popular in its time and better remembered today, My Favorite Wife, a variation on the story with Cary Grant as the remarried spouse whose former wife Irene Dunne returns from sea. Too Many Husbands was remade as a musical, Three for the Show (1955), with Jack Lemmon and Betty Grable. My Favorite Wife came back yet again as Move Over, Darling (1963), with Doris Day and James Garner.
The file for the film in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library indicates that the Production Code Administration, the industry's self-censorship board, informed Columbia in October 1939 that the script of Maugham's play was in violation of the code because of its "apparent lack of any respect for the sanctity of marriage; its farcical treatment of the subject of bigamy; and its very frank and detailed discussion of the unsavory subject of divorce by collusion." There is no indication of what steps the studio might have taken to satisfy the PCA, but for the time, the picture was considered a bit risqu.
Too Many Husbands was filmed with two possible endings. In one, Arthur decides to say with MacMurray, in the other Douglas. A February 1940 news item in the Hollywood Reporter, a month before the film's release, said Columbia selected a jury of twelve female college students from UCLA to help decide which of the two endings would be used. Another news bit a short time later claimed all of the film except for the ending would be screened for coeds from UCLA and USC, and that they would discuss the ending with studio officials. The studio also reportedly sent out more than 10,000 questionnaires to college students throughout the country to help it choose an ending. Either the target audience for the movie was college students or the studio considered them uniquely suited to make such a decision. In any case, the film as released has a somewhat open-ended conclusion.
John P. Livadary was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound Recording for Too Many Husbands. The soundtrack included strains of the 1920 song "My Man," made famous first by Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice and again by Barbra Streisand when she played Brice in the musical bio-pic Funny Girl (1968). The original music score for Too Many Husbands is credited to Frederick Hollander, aka Friedrich Hollaender, best known for composing songs for many of Marlene Dietrich's films.
Producer/Director: Wesley Ruggles
Screenplay: Claude Binyon, based on the play Home and Beauty by W. Somerset Maugham
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Editing: William A. Lyon, Otto Meyer
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Original Music: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Jean Arthur (Vicky Lowndes), Fred MacMurray (Bill Cardew), Melvyn Douglas (Henry 'Hank' Lowndes), Harry Davenport (George), Dorothy Peterson (Gertrude), Melville Cooper (Peter), Edgar Buchanan (Detective McDermott).
by Rob Nixon