We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade.
Here’s Part One, in which we cover the era of silent movies.
Now, we move into the 1940′s, Hollywood’s last great era.
My Favorite Wife, 1940, casts Irene Dunne as Ellen Arden, who returns home after being shipwrecked for seven years on a tropical island. Her homecoming takes place on the very day that her husband, Nick, Cary Grant, is set to wed an aristocratic ice princess, played by the great Gail Patrick, who went on to become Executive Producer of the Perry Mason TV series. If the story sounds familiar, it should because it’s Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden,” hence the last name Arden.
This film is, of course, another comedy of remarriage, but the threat of bigamy adds an extra dose of comedic spice. My Favorite Wife is incredibly bold in its portrayal of modern anxieties. Irene Dunne leaves her family because she “was having a rough time with the children.” When Dunne drops this morsel we laugh nervously because, alas, the sentiment has the awful ring of truth.
Like all the best screwball comedies, proper behavior is turned on its head by playing with role reversals. When Dunne shows up at her house she is dressed as a merchant marine in oversized jacket and pants. Whereas Cary Grant, as always, is a vision of sartorial splendor. It’s Dunne who represents strength and solidity whereas Grant is a charming but weak man, anxious to please whichever woman he’s with at the moment. It’s the goofy but lovable personae that Grant practically invented.
The film is endlessly inventive and innocently wicked in its treatment of marriage and intimacy. The final scene shows Dunne lying comfortably in bed, happily torturing Grant by refusing to allow him to sleep with her. Grant wants to know when he will be allowed to enter her bedroom. Dunne smiles wickedly and says, “Oh, around Christmas.” Which is several months away. At his wit’s end, Grant exits. Terrible sounds are heard from the attic. Grant reappears in the bedroom door—dressed as Santa. The film’s final shot is of a leering Santa, leaving no doubt as to what happens next.
Garson Kanin, one of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters, took over as director when Leo McCarey was involved in a near fatal car crash. Sadly, McCarey got hooked on pain killers and along with his fondness for liquor, his subsequent career, one of the most brilliant in Hollywood, suffered a serious decline.
Cary Grant appears in more movies in this survey than any other actor: Gunga Din, His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, with more to come. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for his roles in Penny Serenade, 1941 and None But the Lonely Heart, 1944, the only Cary Grant film I actively hate.
Both times he was denied Hollywood’s most coveted honor. Grant was finally awarded an Honorary Award at the 42nd Academy Awards, 1970, “For his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues.”
Cary Grant was a Republican, but he never went public with his politics, explaining:
I’m opposed to actors taking sides in public and spouting spontaneously about love, religion, or politics. We aren’t experts on these subjects. Personally I’m a mass of inconsistencies when it comes to politics. My opinions are constantly changing. That’s why I don’t ever take a public stand on issues.
In 1948, Grant contributed generously to the newly established State of Israel. In 1953 he attended two fund-raising dinners celebrating Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital. Perhaps these connections to the Jewish state are the reason it was rumored he was Jewish. Grant was quite coy about his alleged Judaism, but the evidence for a Jewish mother or father is just rumor.
What is known about Grant and his mother is tragic, disturbing, positively Dickensian, and the great trauma of his life. When Grant was nine years-old, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an asylum. When little Grant came home from school, his father told him that his mother was dead.
Cary Grant only discovered the truth when he was thirty years-old. His mother was still alive. Their reunion and subsequent relationship was cordial but often strained. Grant supported his unstable mother for the rest of her life.
Married five times—Virginia Cherrill (1934–1935), Barbara Hutton (1942–1945), Betsy Drake (1949–1962), Dyan Cannon (1965–1967), Barbara Harris (1981–1986)—Cary Grant was unusually perceptive about his troubled relationships with women, observing:
I made the mistake of thinking that each of my wives was my mother, that there would never be a replacement once she left.
In 1929, the young actor Archie Leach, soon to be renamed Cary Grant, made a screen test for Paramount at their East coast studio in Astoria, N.Y. The screen test report was brief and brutal: “Good-looking. Neck too thick. No chance at all.”
For a master class in film acting, watch Grant and Dunne work their magic. She gently teases, trying to provoke her husband into making a decision. Grant, helpless and clueless, is a typical male, trying desperately to avoid hard decisions.
Cary Grant as Nick Arden: “The moment I saw you I knew…”
Irene Dunne as Ellen: “I bet you say that to all your wives.”