“My Favorite Wife” reunited Cary Grant and Irene Dunne two and a half years after their great success in “The Awful Truth”. They would be teamed one final time in “Penny Serenade”, which was a tear-jerker. I wish they had done at least one more comedy together. Like “The Awful Truth”, this was a Leo McCarey project, basically a follow-up that put the actors into another comedy-of-errors, mixed up marriage setup, though as completely different characters.
Unfortunately McCarey was in a serious automobile accident and could not direct the picture. The directorial duties went to Garson Kanin, who was mainly known as a writer and had only directed four films previously, though he had assisted George Abbot on Broadway and directed a Broadway play himself. He did a good job, but the film missed the inspired improvised scenes that McCarey was known for. As good as it is, and it is a good film, it’s not quite on the level of wackiness as “The Awful Truth”.
Cary Grant plays Nick Arden, his name mirroring Enoch Arden, the character in the Tennyson poem after which the plot was modeled now with reversed genders. In the poem, Enoch was a sailor who, presumed dead, comes home after ten years to find his wife married; here, it’s Ellen Arden (Dunne) who returns home after seven years, only to find her husband has just remarried. The plot insists that these two must get back together, and the fun is in watching how.
Gail Patrick plays Nick’s new bride, Bianca, and I must admit it was almost shocking to see a huge smile on her face when first onscreen. She specialized in playing haughty, mean-spirited women as she did in “My Man Godfrey” and the smile was so wildly out of character. Here she’s seen to be a bit vain but otherwise a decent person. It helps that she gets more and more angry as the film progresses. Dunne is at her scheming best here, though her schemes never reach the level of sheer wackiness of pretending to be Grant’s burlesque star sister as in “The Awful Truth”.
Things are bad enough for Grant, who realizes that he must sever all ties in his new, unconsummated marriage when he’s suddenly presented with a new predicament. Up to now he’s assumed Ellen was alone on the South Sea island where she was marooned. But he finds out that a man, Stephen Burkett, was with her the whole time, and that they called each other Adam and Eve. He soon looks Burkett up, only to find him played by a super-athletic Randolph Scott. Grant’s facial reactions to this cascading turn of events is one of the funniest parts of the film.
There are also a couple of funny bits by character actors in the film. Donald MacBride is great as a suspicious Hotel Manager, who, after Nick checks in with his new wife, can’t help but wonder who Ellen is. For those too young to know, this was an era when hotel staff were expected to be morality police and no reputable hotel would allow any hanky panky by its guests. His growing exasperation is hilarious.
Best of all is Granville Bates as Judge Bryson, who bookends the film with appearances in his courtroom. He has a wonderfully strict, no nonsense demeanor, controls his courtroom with an iron fist, and has some of the funniest lines in the film. And it’s not just the lines, but also Bates’ perfect timing and delivery that puts them over. His appearance near the end was added after McCarey himself edited the film and noticed the way it is less funny near the end as the plot has to work itself out. He suggested a new scene with the judge, and it works perfectly to create some big laughs .
This film was the basis of a 1963 remake (of sorts, with many new scenes and updated dialogue) by Doris Day and James Garner. It’s one of the rare films that remakes a classic successfully. Day and Garner are hilarious as are some of the new bits, as when Day impersonates a Swedish masseuse. It’s the best of Day’s later films.