Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #43: "Three Husbands" (1951)

Excerpt from Fred Guardineer's 1951 comic adaptation of 3 Husbands. Read the entire comic here!

The flick: Three Husbands (United Artists release of a Gloria Film Production, 1951) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.5

Director: Irving Reis (All My SonsThe Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer; one of the pioneers of radio drama)

(top) Frank Cady; Billie Burke
(bottom) Jane Darwell; Howard De Silva
Actors of note
  • Eve Arden (comedienne best known for TV's Our Miss Brooks, for which she won an Emmy, and The Mothers-In-Law; was Principal McGee in both Grease movies; Oscar nominated for Mildred Pierce)
  • Ruth Warrick (the first Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane; the mom in Song of the South; put in 35 years on All My Children as Phoebe Tyler Wallingford)
  • Vanessa Brown (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; "B" movie actress with 165 IQ)
  • Howard Da Silva (actor blacklisted during the "red scare" of the early 1950s; pre-blacklist credits include The Lost Weekend and Sergeant York; post-blacklist credits include 1776 and Mommie Dearest, in which he played Louis B. Mayer)
  • Shepperd Strudwick (A Place in the Sun, All the King's Men)
  • Robert Karnes (The Best Years of Our Lives, Miracle on 34th  Street, From Here to Eternity; extensive TV work from the '50s to the '70s including Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Charlie's Angels, M*A*S*H, The Twilight Zone and more)
  • Emlyn Williams (Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn)
  • Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz; wife of theatrical impresario Flo Ziegfeld)
  • Jonathan Hale (Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, much more)
  • Jane Darwell (Mary Poppins, Gone with the Wind, The Ox-Bow Incident; best known as Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath)
  • Frank Cady (Sam Drucker on TV's Green Acres; extensive film work includes The Bad Seed, The Asphalt Jungle, Hitchcock's Rear Window, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, etc.)
  • Louise Erickson (played "bobby soxer" Judy on the long-running 1940s radio show A Date with Judy; married to Ben Gazzara from 1951 to 1957)
  • Jerry Hausner (Kubrick's Paths of Glory; lots of TV work, including Green Acres and The Mothers-In-Law)

Smug Emlyn Williams
The gist of it: Suave British playboy Maxwell Bard (Emlyn Williams) has died of heart failure and gone to Heaven, but before he spends eternity in the kingdom of God, he has one last request: to watch what happens to three different married couples back on Earth. The titular three husbands (De Silva, Strudwick, and Karnes) were Max's poker buddies, and after his death, they receive letters (delivered by lawyer Hale) in which Max confesses to having affairs with their wives (Arden, Warrick, and Brown, respectively).

Flashbacks then reveal that each of the three marriages was troubled in some way. De Silva was a businessman who was embarrassed by wife Arden's coarse manners. Strudwick cheated on Warrick with a flaky young artist (Erickson). Karnes, Max's cousin, was still under the control of his passive-agressive, domineering mother (Burke), who lived in the same house as her son and daughter-in-law. And all three men neglected their wives to one degree or another, staying out late at night to drink and play poker. What effect will Max's posthumously-delivered letters have on these couples? Will there be three divorces? The story reaches its climax when all the characters gather for the reading of Max's will and the true motivation behind the letters becomes known.

My take: Because of this film's relatively high IMDb rating and ridiculously overqualified cast, I was expecting to really enjoy Three Husbands. To put it mildly, though, I did not. In fact, I quickly grew to hate virtually all the characters and wanted a nuclear bomb to drop on whatever city they lived in. These are silly, trivial people who spend an entire movie arguing about silly, trivial things. Marriages and lives are at stake here, yet I don't think any of the characters in this film ever discuss anything real or meaningful.

At heart, this should be what we'd call a bedroom farce, but it was made in 1951, so hanky panky can only be implied in the most abstract, genteel way. This is a sex comedy with no sex and very little comedy. As far as I can tell, having an affair in the early '50s meant going out on swell dates to the movies. A huge problem with this film is its repetitive structure. There are, after all, three couples at play here so we have to sit through three variations on the same story. The script cycles through the same basic events three times. (The husband gets the letter, reads it, can't believe what it says, flashes back to past incidents involving his wife and Max that seem to suggest it could be true, and argues with his wife. Repeat.) It's the Goldilocks and the Three Bears of adultery movies. I think we're supposed to like Max and appreciate him for teaching these dumb, neglectful husbands a lesson, but I just wanted someone to punch the smug bastard right in the chin for being such a know-it-all.

Frankly, none of these marriages were worth saving, so I didn't have much invested in the outcome of the plot. Modern viewers are likely to be horrified at a scene in which a bartender (Hausner) suggests that Karnes' character should smack his wife around a little to prove who's the man in the relationship. Though Karnes does eventually agree with this, he never (thankfully) goes through with it. Incidentally, the whole plot of this film reminded me of a terrific 1968 Stax soul hit called "Who's Making Love" by the late, great Johnnie Taylor. Too bad it came out 17 years after the movie because it would have made an ideal theme song.

Is it funny: Nope. I guess it tries to be, but none of the jokes worked on me until maybe the last five minutes when there's some funny stuff involving Frank Cady as an elevator operator. Even here, though, the movie insists on cycling through the same joke three times. Strudwick and Warrick's marriage is largely played seriously, so the comedy is provided by Louise Erickson as Strudwick's lovelorn, overly-dramatic mistress who gets entirely too clingy entirely too soon. But I think the movie could have gotten more comedic mileage out of this character. The same goes for the Karnes/Brown marriage. The husband and wife play it straight, so the comedic character in this part of the movie is Billie Burke as the buzz-killing mother-in-law, but she, too, could and should have been exaggerated a bit more for comedic effect.

Three Husbands seems to set its tone in the opening sequence in which we see traffic signs on the way to Heaven. Funny signs are usually an indication of zany, go-for-broke comedy in the Mad magazine/Zucker Brothers tradition. But the movie doesn't really go in for madcap gags after that, preferring quip-filled banter. After watching forty-plus comedies from the middle of the previous century, I must admit to having "banter fatigue." When it comes to comedy, funny beats witty any day of the week. I don't want dry chuckles, damn it. I want laughs. Three Husbands just didn't provide them.

My grade: C-

P.S. - Not really any racial stereotypes here. Max has an Asian houseboy, but this character is not presented in any kind of negative or cartoonish way.