Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Forgotten Film: THREE HUSBANDS (1950) starring Ruth Warrick, Eve Arden, Billie Burke and Emlyn Williams
This is one of the stranger movies. It's the sort of thing that purports to be charming and light, with a wink-wink tale to tell about marriage mores but instead it's the sort of movie that makes you cringe and think, 'No. Really?' And yet, I watched the damn thing all the way through, enthralled by an eerie fascination.
The screenplay by Vera Caspary (of LAURA film noir fame) is based on her own story, so she's the one to blame for the lame dialogue and disconcerting plot.
Maxwell Bard (Emlyn Williams), a very English bon-vivant Manhattan playboy is on his way to heaven (one presumes) having just recently dropped dead of a heart attack. But before he can settle in he has a jest for the powers that be (concealed in the clouds) - an odd jest considering the celestial audience, I'd have thought. But at any rate, Max has a joke to share.
You see he's left behind a letter to three hubbies. (Remember A LETTER TO THREE WIVES? Ha. Ha. No. This ain't it.) In this letter he's confessed to an affair with the three hubbies' wives - one affair at a time, that is. Are you laughing yet? He wants to sit back and see what happens next to the three couples he's left behind, once the tell-tale letters are handed over to each husband by the executor of Max's will.
The joke is: the letters aren't true.
Now why this malicious act would be found funny by anyone is beyond me. But why it would be found funny by angels at the portals of heaven is even more beyond me. I'm extrapolating about the 'angels at the portals of heaven' thing since we only hear the celestial voices we don't actually see 'em.
And of course they're all male - members of some exclusive club one supposes.
So that's the set-up.
Down on earth, among the living here's what's happening:
Hubby Number One: Arthur Evans (Shepherd Strudwick, remembered by his oddly waved hair) reads the letter first and is thrown for a loop. Surely his oh-so-devoted wife Jane (Ruth Warrick who played the young, unhappy wife in CITIZEN KANE and went on to become the grand dame of daytime TV in ALL MY CHILDREN) would NEVER cheat on him. Never. But what is he to make of this incriminating letter from a dead friend? He arrives home in a huff.
The fact that old Arthur is currently having an affair with a young model doesn't make him stop and do a little soul searching - not at all. That's a different matter all together. As we all know, men will be men. Are we laughing yet?
Hubby Number Two: Kenneth Whittaker (Robert Karnes) fumes when he thinks that his wife, Mary (Vanessa Brown) who was Max Bard's private nurse (he'd had previous milder heart attacks and needed care) might have also been dallying with her patient. Not that I would blame her, married to this dull dotard.
Hubby Number Three: Dan McCabe (the feisty Howard Da Silva who normally played thugs and whanot and seems miscast in this movie) laughs off the thing as a joke since he can't imagine his wife Lucille (the usually wonderful Eve Arden who has nothing to do in this movie - her lines don't sparkle in the slightest) mixed up in an affair with anyone. Naturally this attitude rankles Lucille a bit when she discovers the source of hubby's amusement.
None of these actors except Emlyn Williams (who seems to have wandered in from another movie) has any idea how to deliver a humorous line (or maybe it's that there is very little humor to be delivered in this rancid screenplay) and that includes Eve Arden who really does know but obviously forgot how to this time out.
So why am I bothering to talk about THREE HUSBANDS at all? Well, you may ask. And here's my answer: Emlyn Williams.
Though it is very hard to imagine any universe in which all these people would actually be friends, Williams is so British, and so delightful in his role of play-boy (even if his 'playing' seems entirely harmless) that when he's on screen, everything else is forgiven. Almost. But it's just that he seems to be having so much fun.
The truth is that Williams' character appears - to me, at least - to be so obviously gay that at no time are these three wives (or any other) in any danger of being seduced - at least not by dear fun-loving Max. He's the accommodating escort who steps in when his married lady friends need accompanying to any event (i.e. museums, art galleries, concerts and the like) which doesn't interest their inattentive husbands.
But no matter how much fun they appear to be having with Max, it's the hubbies who command love and respect (even if undeserved). This is the 50's, remember.
But after Max's untimely death, the letters are delivered and three marriages are suddenly on the line. Are we laughing yet?
The story is told in flashbacks as we get to see Max living it up and interacting with all three wives. And really, one wonders what Max actually finds in these women to entertain him other than the fact that they are unavailable. His attractions are more easily understood. Emlyn Williams plays Max as a charming roue and of course any woman worth her salt would rather be in his company than that of any one of the three stodges - an unintended consequence of the casting.
The ending is not unexpected, even down to the reading aloud of yet another letter left by Max rounding off things in the nick of time and giving the wives their due. Sort of. Hint: Max would appear to see himself as marriage counselor to his friends.
In the history of male/female relationships, the 1950's were not a decade of enlightenment.
THREE HUSBANDS is available for viewing online at youtube - here. Take a look. Maybe you'll enjoy it on a different level than I did.
Coming up later: Don't forget to check out Todd Mason's weekly Forgotten Films, Television or Other Audio/Visuals meme usually seen every Tuesday at his blog, Sweet Freedom.