Saturday, May 28, 2016

Tonight's Movie: The Wife Takes a Flyer (1942)

Joan Bennett and Franchot Tone star in THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER (1942), an anti-Nazi comedy released a few months after Pearl Harbor.

THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER was released just weeks after another wartime comedy, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942), and it was rather fascinating watching the movies a couple of days apart.

The movies are similar in that each centers around an anti-Nazi resistance movement; TO BE OR NOT TO BE is about Polish freedom fighters, while THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER is set in Holland. Both films portray the Nazis as buffoons who will inevitably lose to the Allies.

Yet while TO BE OR NOT TO BE has a surprisingly light touch with its dark humor, THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER is simply strange, which might be an understatement; its humor is more of the leaden and unsophisticated HOGAN'S HEROES variety, although the lead actors and unusual story make it worth a look.

Tone plays Christopher Reynolds, an American flyer for the R.A.F. who is shot down over Holland. He's hidden by a Dutch family, the Wovermans; the Wovermans pretend he's their son Henrik, due home from an extended stay at a sanitarium.

Bennett plays the real Henrik's estranged wife Anita, who has plans to divorce Henrik but is quite taken with the new version of her "husband."

Complicating everything is Nazi General Zellfritz (Allyn Joslyn), who commandeers a room in the Woverman home. He has designs on Anita and is very intent on her divorce taking place.

Christopher must continue to play the role of Henrik in order to protect the Wovermans from the General, while at the same time he needs to find a way to complete his mission.

This is quite an oddball movie; it warns in an opening card that it will make fun of the enemy, and it's quite merciless in doing so.

From today's standpoint, some of the jokes are a bit jaw-dropping, yet really the lines about executions are not all that different from those in TO BE OR NOT TO BE -- they're just not as well, er, executed.

I love Allyn Joslyn, who is fantastic in films such as MOONRISE (1948) and ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953), but he's really not very good in this one. Part of the problem is the script; he's stuck playing an incredibly dense character, but much of the performance consists of barking his dialogue, which becomes wearying.

Then there's the entire concept that Anita is married to someone with mental problems; in the end he turns out to be daffy but a nice guy, played by Hans Conreid. How Anita and Henrik ended up together in the first place, we'll never know.

Add in Anita renting a room in a home for elderly ladies, who all pitch in to help Christopher battle the Nazis, and it's a pretty wacky film. You've got a courtroom divorce scene straight out of a screwball comedy, but it's interrupted by Gestapo agents; the movie's tone tends to wander between the funny and the serious, with the biggest clash of styles being a scene where Christopher is condemned to death played for laughs.

As one could infer from the above, I wouldn't call it a good movie, yet at the same time I found it strangely diverting. I'm a big fan of both Bennett and Tone and found it worth seeing for them, and it was also worthwhile from an historical perspective, since I'm interested in Hollywood's role in WWII. It's especially interesting to watch films which were released in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor and our entrance into the war.

As a side note, a couple of years previously Bennett had appeared in a much more serious anti-Nazi film, THE MAN I MARRIED (1940), in which she plays an American trapped in Germany with her German-born husband.

The large supporting cast of THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER includes Lloyd Corrigan, Barbara Brown, Roger Clark, Aubrey Mather, and Cecil Cunningham. When a group of Gestapo soldiers walked into the courthouse, I did a double-take as the lead soldier was James Millican. Lloyd Bridges and Hugh Beaumont are supposed to be soldiers as well, but I didn't spot them!

THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER was directed by Richard Wallace. It was filmed in black and white by Franz Planer. The running time is 86 minutes.

To my knowledge, this Columbia Pictures film is not available on DVD or other formats.

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