Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Wife, Husband and Friend (1939)

Leonard Borland (Warner Baxter) is a successful contractor whose business is currently struggling due to the late '30s recession. At home Leonard is also contending with his lovely young society wife, Doris (Loretta Young), who has a burning desire to be an opera star. There's just one problem...Doris's voice would be fine for a church choir, but it's not star material.

Leonard hates to disappoint his wife with the Awful Truth about her singing...especially when it's inadvertently discovered that Leonard himself has an amazing singing voice which literally shatters glass.

WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND is a good-but-not great film which makes for an enjoyable hour and 20 minutes. The recession jokes about Leonard's construction business are surprisingly -- if sadly -- undated; Leonard and his partner (Eugene Pallette) are hoping for the stimulus of a new New Deal. The singing, at least for Baxter, is obviously dubbed, but doesn't detract from the film.

My main disappointment with the film was with plot developments in the final 10 minutes or so of the movie, particularly the climactic opera sequence. I also found Doris's parents (Helen Westley and George Barbier) to be a little too over-the-top in their meanness. These characters and the plot points near the end threaten to tip the film from comedy into pathos; it should have been handled with a lighter touch.

Warner Baxter (born 1889) was just about twice the age of his costar, Loretta Young (born 1913). However, while he definitely appears older on screen, the difference doesn't appear as pronounced as one might expect -- at least, until the scene where Leonard goes on a drunken binge -- and it fits with the storyline of the self-made contractor who probably spent years developing his business before becoming the doting husband of a beautiful young wife.

The supporting cast includes Binnie Barnes as the opera singer who discovers Leonard's talent and Cesar Romero as Doris's teacher.

WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND was directed by Gregory Ratoff. It was shot in black and white.

Nunnally Johnson's screenplay was based on a novel by, of all people, James M. Cain, author of the crime classic THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE.

WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND was remade a decade later as EVERYBODY DOES IT, with Paul Douglas, Celeste Holm, and Linda Darnell in the Baxter, Young, and Barnes roles, and a supporting cast including Charles Coburn, Lucile Watson, and Milburn Stone. I recently recorded the remake when it was shown on Fox Movie Channel so I hope to watch it fairly soon. The remake generally seems to be considered the superior of the two versions.

WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND has been shown on Turner Classic Movies, although it's a Fox film, so it might eventually also turn up on Fox Movie Channel. It has not been released on VHS or DVD.

2013 Update: This film is now available on DVD-R in the Fox Cinema Archives series.


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