Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #29: "Lonely Wives" (1931)

A top-hatted owl promises me that I'll be surprised by Lonely Wives (1931). Who am I to doubt?

The flick: Lonely Wives (Pathé Exchange, distributed by RKO, 1931) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.0

Director: Russell Mack (The Stolen Jools, Hollywood Party; 1920s Broadway actor and father of Cynthia Wood, whose "Broken Angel House" was used as the setting of Dave Chappelle's Block Party but then was foreclosed upon)

Actors of note: Edward Everett Horton (Arsenic and Old Lace, Top Hat, narrator of "Fractured Fairy Tales" on The Bullwinkle Show), Esther Ralston (The Marriage Cycle; Sadie McKee; an extra in The Kid; was promoted by showman Flo Ziegfield, Jr. as "The American Venus"), Laura La Plante (The Cat and the Canary, The King of Jazz), Patsy Ruth Miller (the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Lon Chaney, Sr.), Maude Eburne (I'm from Arkansas), Spencer Charters (Arsenic and Old Lace, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Yankee Doodle Dandy), Maurice Black (The Bride of Frankenstein, Scarface [1932 version])

Edward Everett Horton
The gist of it: Sober, serious defense attorney Richard Smith (Horton) becomes a skirt-chasing party animal at 8:00 every night. And what's more, his wife Madeline (Ralston) has been on a mountain retreat for months. Temptations abound! In fact, Richard makes a date with two women: his slinky new secretary Kitty (Miller) and her friend Diane (La Plante), a "lonely wife" who is seeking a divorce from her actor husband. But before these three can hit the town, including a nightspot called the Whoopee Club, Richard has to deal with his hovering, smothering mother-in law, Mrs. Mantel (Eburne), who wants to make sure that Richard and Madeline stay together and have children. What to do?

Well, at just that moment, a celebrity impersonator named Felix (also Horton) shows up at Richard's home office to ask for permission to portray the famed lawyer onstage. Richard says he'll grant his permission... if Felix will stay at home and pretend to be him for the benefit of Mrs. Mantel. But things get complicated when Madeline unexpectedly shows up and wants to get romantic with her "husband." Richard stays out all night, while back at home, Felix tries to fend off Madeline's wifely advances. The next morning quickly takes a turn for the absurd when the real Richard arrives before the fake one has left. And things only get worse when a very drunk Diane -- who turns out to be Felix's wife! -- shows up at the Smith residence owing an irate cabbie (Black) fifty bucks. Richard and Felix both believe their wives have been unfaithful to them with their respective lookalikes!

Now that's show business: Fractured Fairy Tales.
My take: I've said it before, but it bears repeating: to me, having worked on NBC's The Bullwinkle Show is more prestigious than having won an Academy Award. After appearances by Charlie Ruggles (Aesop) and Hans Conried (Snidely Whiplash), we finally have a third Bullwinkle alum in this collection. Edward Everett Horton, the droll storyteller of Fractured Fairy Tales, stars in the rather naughty early '30s bedroom farce, Lonely Wives. And not only that! There are two of him in this movie... three if you consider that the lawyer has a Jekyll-Hyde personality.

This movie is classified as "pre-code," meaning it was released before a strict and terrible 1934 decree known (inaccurately but commonly) as the Hays Code, i.e. Hollywood's self-imposed ban on virtually everything fun or interesting in motion pictures. The code was, of course, put to the test and challenged every year of its existence and was finally ditched in favor of the still-imperfect MPAA ratings system in 1968. But back in 1931, you could still (just barely) get away with a movie whose central question is: did we sleep with each other's wives last night? Oh, naturally, you couldn't actually say that out loud, but you could certainly imply it.

You couldn't really say that much, in fact, back then. Lonely Wives -- and, yes, the title is meant to be suggestive -- has a little fun with this idea. In one scene, Richard tries to discuss the topic of adultery with the impossibly naive Diane while avoiding any crude language or direct references to sex, but he soon finds it impossible and gives up. The movie hints at as many things as it can, as in one scene in which we are allowed to watch Kitty take a shower behind a very improbable shower curtain which shows her from the shoulders up. (In one delightful moment, Diane asks her if she's "decent," and Kitty replies, "No, but come in anyway.")

Your enjoyment of a film like Lonely Wives will depend on your tolerance for farce. If you like comedies in which all the characters run around frantically while the complications, lies, and miscommunications keep piling up, you're likely to find Lonely Wives a real hoot, as I did. It's fairly obvious that this was based on a stage play, but the one principal location -- Richard's plush home (defending murderers, his specialty, is lucrative) -- is a versatile set with plenty of bathrooms to hide in, windows to climb out of, drainpipes to shinny, and bannisters to slide down. Modern audiences might tend to look down their noses a bit at farce, but I'd be quick to remind them that the genre is the granddaddy of Fawlty Towers (especially sex-centric episodes like "The Wedding Party"), Ruthless People, Seinfeld, and much more.

As a would-be writer of comedy, I'm always impressed with the way a good farce can keep so many plates spinning at once. In stories like this, you have to have a character who simply can't believe what he's seeing and feels he must be going insane. In this case, that time-honored tradition is fulfilled by poor, put-upon Andrews (Charters), the Smiths' drunken butler who finds himself catering to two different versions of his boss, one of whom doesn't even seem to know the layout of his own house! Of course, it doesn't hurt that this movie is chock-full of ladies who are very sexy in that 1930s kind of way. The Jazz Age of the 1920s was over and its spirit supposedly extinguished by the Great Depression, but America clearly had not yet lost its appetite for sin.

By the way, there is one scene that modern audiences will not be able to believe, and it occurs early on when Richard asks his new secretary, Kitty, to demonstrate her sexy "wiggle" for him... and she does so, gleefully! Clearly, the term "sexual harassment in the workplace" had not been coined back then. If it had been, Lonely Wives wouldn't have been able to include a subplot (one of many) about Mr. Smith's flirty French maid either. That would have been a real shame.

Is it funny: Oh, dear heavens, yes! In his pre-cartoon days, Edward Everett Horton specialized in playing ineffectual, "milquetoast" characters, so it's great fun to see him get to play a dirty dog here! In order to distinguish between the two Hortons in this film, the well-to-do lawyer has a very sleazy-looking little devil beard (technically, a Van Dyke), plus slicked-back hair and little round glasses. Felix, the actor, has a fake beard which he can apply or remove as need be. Both display rather questionable morals throughout Lonely Wives, which makes their story all the more entertaining.

Richard is a would-be scoundrel, were it not for his ever-present mother-in-law, and Felix is not beyond temptation either. One of my favorite moments occurs when the actor, trying desperately to keep Madeline at arm's length, waits impatiently for Richard to return his phone call and save him from this compromising situation. But when the phone finally rings, Felix has lost his "struggle" with Madeline and allows her to kiss him full on the mouth. He ignores the phone call, looks to us in the audience and says, "Too late."

My grade: A-

P.S. - Not a racial stereotype for miles! God bless this movie!

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