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He Married His Wife
Remind Me
,He Married His Wife

He Married His Wife

Roy Del Ruth's He Married His Wife (1940) has no secrets from you. The movie's own title is a spoiler, followed by 83 minutes of amiable silliness of the screwball variety, in which no amount of suspense over the outcome is anticipated--the point here is not the destination, but the journey.

The "he" of the title is horse racing mogul T.H. Randall (Joel McCrea). His preoccupation with--and incompetence at--the horse trade crowds out any other consideration. Valerie Randall (Nancy Kelly) has grown weary of perpetual also-ran status in her husband's life, and divorces him. Ironically, divorce provides her with the opportunity to force her way higher on his list of priorities: as he is now committed to a punishing monthly alimony, he can't help but think of her constantly. T.H. conspires with his lawyer (Roland Young) to end the alimony by getting Valerie married to someone, anyone--say, their mutual friend Paul (Lyle Talbot). The plan goes awry when Valerie snubs Paul for a flashy, oily gigolo (Cesar Romero), causing T.H. to realize he cares about something much more than horses or alimony...

When He Married His Wife opened in 1940, the New York Times called it "on the hairebrained and whimsical side, and if you are like-minded there is no reason why it shouldn't strike you as one of the season's less tedious offerings." Back-handed praise like this came with a tut-tutting admonition that it took no less than six credited writers (four screenplay, two story) to come up with the script--a dispiriting fact that pretty much every other reviewer noted as well.

The story shows the evidence of so many disparate creators--it is cluttered with bits of business and stray ideas that appear to be remnants of some previous draft, unfinished thoughts all. For example, the horse racing theme dominates the early scenes without building to anything specific, and the budget-conscious film never gets around to showing any horses. At the same time, the multitude of writers managed to come up with plenty of tangential incidents to show off the talented supporting cast.

For example, fitness-obsessed yoga-nut Elisha Cook, Jr. shows up for no readily apparent reason other than to steal a few scenes, which is a feat given how much of the comic energy of the movie is commanded not by its leading players but by Mary Boland as the ditzy socialite Ethel Hilary. Boland's giddy performance seems to assume the movie is in fact about her, and given what a glorious force of nature she is, it might as well be. She steamrolls her way through the film, with an endless supply of restless, over-sexed non-sequiturs. The bulk of the story takes place at her elegant retreat "The Duck Pond" (Boland offers various, increasingly incoherent, explanations for why it is called that).

Cesar Romero is predictably smarmy as the uninvited playboy--although Valerie's conniving manipulation of him is less expected. Lyle Talbot is arguably best-served by the proceedings, getting the opportunity to play against type in a role seemingly written with someone more like Charley Chase in mind. Talbot looks like a manly man, all muscles and self-confidence, but the character of Paul is written as an overgrown boy, way out of his depth in matters of love and sex.

In addition to the comedy talents filling out the cast, the production team had their own bona fides. Producer Raymond Griffith was a veteran of silent slapstick, and had been a serious rival to Chaplin and Keaton back in the 1920s. His director, Roy Del Ruth, also came from the silent slapstick tradition, having gotten his start directing the likes of Harry Langdon and Billy Bevan for Mack Sennett.

The overcrowded writing staff is an odd jumble of former qualifications. Top-billed writer Sam Hellman did not specialize in comedy, and would later come to be best known for his work writing Westerns such as My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Return of Frank James (1940). Darrell Ware had more experience writing comedies, but predominantly in the less distinguished B-movie realm (such as 1939's Charlie McCarthy, Detective). Lynn Starling had more notable comedy writing credits, including the 1937 romantic comedy As Good As Married whose alimony-based plot prefigured He Married His Wife. John O'Hara had no previous writing credit, and Erna Lazarus' sole previous credit was collaborating with fellow story-author Scott Darling on the 1937 drama Atlantic Flight. Darling's CV was dominated by B-thrillers, such as Charlie Chan movies.

Arguably more important to the development of He Married His Wife than any individual contributor was a certain curious zeitgeist. In 1940, a cluster of screwball comedies came out in rapid succession that by accident or design shared a common thread: they were comedies about divorced couples getting remarried. This is not to say they were about divorced couples falling back in love, because these comedies were all predicated on the idea that their couples never stopped loving each other. Their marriages, divorces, courtship, and remarriage are all defined by conflict and combat, but they never fell out of love. This curious subgenre produced the likes of The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), That Uncertain Feeling (1941) and Palm Beach Story (1942) before petering out, but sandwiched in amongst these more familiar titles is He Married His Wife. Aside from Cary Grant's starring in four such divorce comedies, Joel McCrea became something of a fixture in this subgenre with two such films--an irony, given that Joel McCrea was one of the few happily married men in all of Hollywood. McCrea married Frances Dee in 1933 and they stayed together for 57 years.

By David Kalat

Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era.
Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage.
William K. Everson, Hollywood Bedlam: Classic Screwball Comedies.