Vicky (Jean Arthur) was widowed when her husband Bill (Fred MacMurray) was lost at sea. Six months after Bill's death, Vicky married Bill's best friend and business partner, Hank (Melvyn Douglas). Then Bill, who had been stranded on a desert island, returns from the dead and Vicky suddenly finds herself with TOO MANY HUSBANDS.
Jean Arthur is delightful, secretly enjoying the adoring attention of not one but two men, and she wears a spectacular wardrobe by Irene. (Those hats!) Arthur's acting style is perfect for the befuddled, uncertain wife. Beneath the humor, she also conveys the anguish of loving two men and not wanting to hurt either of them. MacMurray and Douglas have their moments, but they don't have the chance to develop their characters to any great extent, and it's Arthur's movie all the way.
The film is good fun, but Vicky's dithering about which husband to choose does go on a bit too long. The movie's unique feature is also its greatest flaw -- the viewer isn't given a reason to pull for one of the leading men over the other. In fact, at times their endless competition for Vicky makes them unsympathetic. Ultimately, Vicky's dilemma is resolved legally, but not emotionally. The final scene, of the unusual threesome dancing together, aims for whimsy but feels a bit heavy-handed instead, as the characters face what seems to be an uncertain future.
The "spouse returning from a desert island" theme was popular in 1940. Just a few weeks after the release of TOO MANY HUSBANDS, the better-known MY FAVORITE WIFE opened starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. In MY FAVORITE WIFE it's the wife who returns from the dead. Cary Grant's character was engaged, not remarried, and as the fiancee (Gail Patrick) was not a sympathetic character, the audience could easily root for Dunne and Grant to reunite...although there was the complication of another man, "Adam" (Randolph Scott), who had been marooned on the island with Dunne.
The supporting cast of TOO MANY HUSBANDS includes Harry Davenport as Arthur's perplexed father, Melville Cooper as the butler, and Edgar Buchanan and Tom Dugan as two suspicious police detectives. All four actors are very funny, with Cooper a standout for his dry reactions to the unusual goings-on in the household.
TOO MANY HUSBANDS runs 84 minutes and was directed by Wesley Ruggles. It was filmed in black and white. The screenplay was based on a play by Somerset Maugham titled HOME AND BEAUTY.
TOO MANY HUSBANDS was remade in 1955 as THREE FOR THE SHOW, starring Betty Grable, Jack Lemmon, and Marge and Gower Champion.
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TOO MANY HUSBANDS isn't a perfect comedy, but it has some memorable moments and is worth seeing if you're a fan of Jean Arthur or romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s.
August 2009 Update: TOO MANY HUSBANDS is now available on DVD in the Icons of Screwball Comedy Volume I.