The McCarey Treatment

Revisiting Leo McCarey for an upcoming project. MY FAVORITE WIFE recombines so many of the successful elements of THE AWFUL TRUTH it’s practically a remake, or else a dream-sequel. Like the earlier film, it ends at a mountain cottage, modeled on the one McCarey owned for real, but just before filming began, McCarey was driving back from that cottage at night at ninety miles an hour (drink may have been taken, a hypothesis strengthened by the presence of Gene Fowler in the passenger seat) when he collided with another vehicle. The accounts don’t bother to relate what happened to the non-famous collidee, but McCarey was thrown 126 feet from his tumbling vehicle, suffering serious injuries, and Fowler was pronounced dead at the scene — only to surprise everyone by coming round in the ambulance.

So McCarey was chairbound during production of MFW, leaving Garson Kanin to take over most of the direction, with McCarey supervising as best he could. Kanin is usually blamed for the film not being quite as good as the incomparable THE AWFUL TRUTH, though he could be a very good director of comedy (BACHELOR MOTHER is terrif). I’d rather blame McCarey not being in top form, for obvious reasons.

The movie begins with Grant attempting to declare one wife dead so he can marry another — Gail Patrick, screwball comedy’s perennial other woman. There’s a marvelously tetchy judge, played by Granville Bates — Peter Bogdanovich would recycle the character as Liam Dunn in WHAT’S UP, DOC?* McCarey is using his own experience as an unsuccessful lawyer here, but he reports that Patrick, who had studied law, also helped.

Then Irene Dunne turns up as the not-dead wife. Basically, she’s Ulysses, come to slay his wife’s suitors. McCarey emphasises this by having her show up in drag, as a Portuguese fisherman, and having the family dog be the only one to immediately recognise her. This being a screwball, she doesn’t physically slaughter Gail Patrick, she just bamboozles her and produces a series of confusions and impersonations, including an embarrassing southerner routine self-plagiarised from THE AWFUL TRUTH.

Reacting to the sight of one’s children after seven years’ separation is a tough task for any actor. The divine Irene overdoes it a bit. In the unfinished remake, SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE, Marilyn Monroe tries to underplay, but just manages to look as if she wants to have sex with her children.

Grant’s first sight of Dunne is one of the great double-takes of the forties. In Japanese tradition, by the way, if you get a partially occluded view of a dead loved one (as in Miike’s AUDITION), it means said departed one has unfinished business, which Dunne certainly do, I mean does.

The scenario keeps ringing the changes on Grant’s failure to inform his new wife about his late wife, cunningly devising situations where he can make the worst possible decision. But the sit. can’t keep generating com. all by itself forever, and so a new romantic rival is introduced, health fanatic Randolph Scott, who it turns out has spent the seven years of Irene’s supposed death on an island with her, shipwrecked and alone. Calling each other Adam and Eve, continuing the mythic theme. This, deliciously, allows Grant to obsess over Scott, supposedly with jealousy, but with a double entendre for anyone aware of the Hollywood lore about this cohabiting pair. A tiny phantasmal homunculus of Scott torments Grant’s imagination from a trapeze. Scott’s physique makes Grant break out in a sweat.

Grant’s character, by the way, is Nick Arden, the surname suggesting Shakespeare’s forest in AS YOU LIKE IT where names and jobs and genders become comically fluid. The first name comes into play in the movie’s final mythic reference ~

*Bogdanovich would also borrow some of McCarey’s reminiscences about his lawyering days for the opening of NICKELODEON. And he seems to have borrowed large parts of Serge Daney & Louis Scorecki’s interview in Cahiers du Cinema for his own McCarey interview in his magnificent book Who the Devil Made It? It seems likely that Bogdanovich met McCarey and got the anecdotes about the early parts of his life on tape, but McCarey’s rapidly failing health prevented him from going on. At any rate, many of the longer answers in Bogdanovich’s piece are word-for-word the same as those in the earlier interview, a remarkable feat of memory for a dying man.


10 Responses to “The McCarey Treatment”

  1. Cary and Randy lived together for over a decade. They had a house in Malibu and a pied-a-terre in town. Their relationship lasted longer than any of his marriages.

  2. And Orry Kelly says in his book he pushed Grant into it because he was fed up of him!

  3. Ah-ha, you’re quite right about the relevance of Enoch Arden. Feels like that then suggested Shakespeare’s gender and identity mix-ups in the forest of that name.

  4. Another weird connection: returning from her desert island the dead, Irene buys new shoes (as you might), and finds that her feet have changed size, like Martin Guerre’s.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    There was one more version, “Move Over Darling” with Doris Day and James Garner — Don’t know if that was a salvaged script from “Something’s Got to Give”, but I do remember that Wally Cox was the harmless soul Doris tried to pawn off as her island cohabitant.

  6. Good casting! One might think it a jinxed project, since the first version nearly saw McCare killed, and the second was never completed, but I’m not aware of any notable mishap with MO,D, and Garner lived a long life and Doris is still happily still extant.

  7. Wrong! It was Don Knotts. In “Something’s Got To Give” Wally Cox played the shoe clerk Marilyn was trying to pass off as her Island mate. Her real one was (wait for it) Tom Tryon (!)

    All this plus Cukor’s direction makes “Something’s Got To Give” the ultimate “Gay Jeopardy” tie-breaker.

  8. Wow! It sure does.

  9. bensondonald Says:

    David Ehrenstein: I stand corrected. I have a false memory of Wally Cox being a shoe salesman who thinks Doris is coming on to him.

    SGTG would have been an oddball. Were they going to try and make Monroe look like she’d been away from glamour from years? Was it pure froth, or were they going to exploit any of the dramatic chops she’d been developing?

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