Whether it’s a man and two women, or a woman and two men, the love triangle has been Hollywood’s bread and butter for decades. 1940 was all about this, as evidenced by two highly similar movies that came out within months of each other – the Cary Grant starring My Favorite Wife, and today’s film, Too Many Husbands. I reviewed My Favorite Wife last January and you can read it here. Though I did enjoy My Favorite Wife, Too Many Husbands edges it out as the victor between the two with a wittier script by Claude Binyon and a trifecta of equally hysterical performances from Fred MacMurray, Jean Arthur, and Melvyn Douglas.
After the death of her husband, Vicky Lowndes (Arthur) has married her husband’s business associate, Henry (Douglas). But when Vicky’s husband, Bill (MacMurray), is discovered to be very much alive, complications ensue as Vicky is forced to decide which man she should stay with.
Too Many Husbands lacks the star power of a Cary Grant, but makes up for it with a hilarious and fast-paced script by Claude Binyon (who also wrote the script for Holiday Inn, but I won’t hold that against him). The actors work perfectly with the script, and I had to stop myself from writing down quotes – a mark of a well-written script. Each actor is well-versed in comedy which is necessary to create the tension and the laughs and all the reactions are authentic. Interestingly, you’d expect the stuffy Henry to be the straight man, but that position goes to character actor Harry Davenport as Vicky’s father. He sits back and watches the hijinks unfold, answering questions in a blustery, deadpan style. When Henry and Bill reunite and Bill discovers his former partner is now married (not realizing Henry is married to Bill’s wife) its comedic gold elevated by Davenport; Henry: “I’m married.” Bill: “Who’s the girl? Someone I know?” Father: “Very well.” Honestly, none of the actors here are bad and all coalesce into demonstrating how an ensemble cast should work. Where Grant was the put-upon straight man, his new wife (played by Gail Patrick) was cool and obviously wrong for him, and Irene Dunne was the irresponsible but loving wife, Too Many Husbands exposes each character’s neuroses; they’re all fully formed characters with zany characteristics, and all with the same intent: to find love.
The character interactions are what sets this apart from My Favorite Wife. Too often in that film events felt like set pieces in order to satisfy the list of elements that should take place. Here, scenes happen in a few key locations, leaving the characters to verbally spar against each other. From the minute the film opens, the jealousy between Bill and Henry is established. It’s a credit to Melvyn Douglas’ acting that you never hate him for one second. The movie opens with him having what his partner once had, namely Bill’s wife, and yet Henry can’t get away from the image of the great Bill Cardew, going so far as to rip up a picture of the man. It would be simple to place Henry in the vein of uptight workaholic, and while he is, you can’t help but fall in love with his game of one-upping Bill. I haven’t watched any of Douglas’ past performances, but he is hilarious in every scene; at times he overshadows Arthur and MacMurray. When Henry hears that Bill is alive he stamps his foot and passes out, a reaction you’d expect from a girl as opposed to a grown man. Despite both men wanting to test their strength and virility to force Vicky’s hand, they end up relegating themselves into babies.
I rag on MacMurray a lot, mainly because of how despicable he is in The Apartment, but I couldn’t help falling in love with his character. His hangdog expression when he’s hoping to garner Vicky’s sympathy is sweet and ersatz, and he’s the master of the guilt trip: “This is what I dreamed about when I starved on berries and fish!” He lays it on thick with every character, especially Henry; Henry: “I’m only three years older than you!” Bill: “Those are the years that count!” He’s given the tightest connection to Arthur and you can witness the two of them playing off each other. Arthur isn’t playing the career woman as she did in other films; instead she is the woman struggling – and relishing – the male attention of her new husband and formerly dead husband. When she lays eyes on Bill for the first time in years, Henry is astounded that his wife isn’t hiding how happy she is to see Bill. Arthur becomes the mistress of stage business, continually doing something for one husband, only to slyly backtrack when another husband catches her. It’s actually pretty empowering watching Vicky bask in the adoration of two men, men who could have taken her for granted but are now fighting tooth and claw for her attention. Of course, as she struggles to decide which man to stay with she turns them into better men for her.
The only issue I have with Too Many Husbands is the lack of resolution because all three characters are good and worthy of Vicky. I may fault My Favorite Wife for defining its characters into “good” and “bad,” but at least it forces characters into closure. The end of Too Many Husbands has Vicky making a choice, but all three end up together in the final scene with Bill and Henry continuing to squabble. Where’s the resolution? It’s a funny sequence to end on, but for all the set-up the payoff disappears. I’m nitpicking because the ending doesn’t sink the entire movie, but it does dampen everything we’ve watched. In the end, I enjoyed Too Many Husbands in a way completely different from My Favorite Wife. I recommend watching this first and then following it up with My Favorite Wife.
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