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You wouldn't know it from the silly story of a socialite with limited talent who embarks on a singing career while her opera-hating husband turns out to be a gifted baritone secretly launching his own debut, but this souffl of a romantic comedy is based on a story by James M. Cain, the author best known for his dark melodramas of adultery, betrayal and murder. There's little of that Cain darkness in Wife, Husband and Friend, a light romantic comedy from 1939 starring Loretta Young as Doris, the ambitious high society wife of the title, and Warner Baxter as husband Leonard, a successful contractor and self-made businessman who treats a night at the opera as a good opportunity for a nap.
Encouraged by her voice coach (Cesar Romero, looking very much the scheming Latin lover) and her harpy of a haughty, snobbish mother (Helen Westley, all arrogance and disdain), Doris decides to revive the singing career she put on hold to marry Leonard. Musical ambition is apparently a trait of the Boland women: "a vicious streak of music runs through the whole caboodle of them," Doris' father (George Barbier) warns Leonard. It's apparently a fate that has already driven him to drink, but Leonard dismisses the warning signs until it's too late to do anything but play along and hope she'll just get over it. While Doris goes into full career mode, professional opera and recital singer Cecil Carver (Binnie Barnes) discovers that self-described bathroom-singer Leonard is a born baritone and a natural talent. Hoping to woo this frustrated gent from his distracted wife, Cecil makes him a proposal: she'll secretly coach him so he can beat his wife at her own game. Secrets and lies inevitably pile up (this couple is not a paragon of communication, but then where would the story come from if they actually were honest with one another?) and their fairy-tale marriage becomes a battle of the sexes. Until the inevitable happy ending, that is, which offers the strangest kind of moral: There's nothing like failure and humiliation to heal a marriage.
Warner Baxter wasn't known as a light comedian but he acquits himself well as the street-smart lug turned successful businessman. He's as cultured as a bum at the ball and looks like a thug in a tuxedo when he delivers his first recital, slouching and scratching himself while serenading an audience of swells with the voice of an angel. Offstage he's a typical thirties chauvinist and is downright condescending to his wife's dreams, but his direct manner and snappy wit is a refreshing breeze through the stultifying air of snooty, condescending social manners and upper-class arrogance. Loretta Young, a Hollywood class act of dignity and elegance, plays Doris as the embodiment of the dreamy society woman who runs on pure emotion and impulse, and essentially plays straight-man to Baxter's practical manner. (The role was, reportedly, originally to be played by Myrna Loy, perhaps in hopes to recreate the magic she had created opposite William Powell.) They are an unlikely couple but the affection they exhibit for one another is palpable and makes the romance work.
The terrific Binnie Barnes made a career of tough-minded dames and other woman roles and is in excellent form here as Cecil, working her seductive smile and bedroom eyes on Leonard, who is nervous at best and oblivious at worst, much to her consternation. One feels the mighty power of the production code in the way that director Gregory Ratoff (who directed Ingrid Bergman in her American debut in Intermezzo the same year) and screenwriter/producer Nunnally Johnson (who adapted James M. Cain's short story "Two Can Sing") effectively scrub most suggestions of infidelity out of the film. Romero, whom one expects to make a pass at his star pupil, is left to largely skulk through the background of Wife, Husband and Friend.
Running a brisk 75 minutes, the lightweight comedy is a silly little distraction with charming moments. Gravel-voiced character actor Eugene Pallette makes the most of his brief role with his trademark delivery of sardonic quips and little-known Ruth Terry brings a kind of Judy Garland innocence to her turn as Leonard's secretary. The score features a mix of opera selections and concert hall pieces with popular standards, notably a rendition of "On The Road to Mandalay" that Leonard delivers at a high society party. (Warner Baxter, Loretta Young and Binnie Barnes all lip-synch their musical performances, of course, but the real singers are not identified in the credits.)
Wife, Husband and Friend is one of the last films that Loretta Young made under contract to 20th-Century-Fox. When her contract was up, the actress declined to be re-sign for Fox or any other studio, which would put her at the mercy of the studio bosses. Many predicted that her career would flounder as the studios snubbed her services, but after a lean year she was back in major productions and subsequently won an Oscar® for the 1947 The Farmer's Wife.
Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Director: Gregory Ratoff
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (based on the novel Two Can Sing by James M. Cain)
Cinematography: Ernest Palmer
Art Direction: Richard Day, Mark-Lee Kirk
Costume Design: Royer
Set Decoration: Thomas Little
Cast: Loretta Young (Doris Borland), Warner Baxter (Leonard Borland), Binnie Barnes (Cecil Carver), Cesar Romero (Hugo), George Barbier (Maj. Blair), Eugene Pallette (Mike Craig).
by Sean Axmaker