When I found out that Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray had worked in an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “Home and Beauty” (or in its American and film title “Too Many Husbands” - comments about the play can be found here) I was quite excited with the prospect of one day having the chance of seeing this. When Sony announced its two DVD sets of four screwball comedies each and it decided to include it, I was delighted. After all, hardly anyone knows who any of these three actors are, despite the fact that once upon a time they were extremely popular. (Still waiting for the other volume to arrive so I can watch “Theodora goes Wild” – more Melvyn Douglas, this time with Irene Dunne).
If you are bothered by spoilers, I would suggest you should stop reading here. For once, I intend to discuss plot into some detail, and wouldn’t like to spoil anyone’s pleasure.
The first thing that caught my attention was the changes in the plot line. When they said “based on” they should have said “loosely inspired by” – not that is a capital sin, it’s just doesn’t bare any resemblance to the play. Ok, it does in the following – a woman finds out that her dead first husband isn’t dead after all, and that she finds quite difficult to choose between old and new. The similarities end there. In the play, set at the end of WWI, Victoria is a truly unpleasant character and the husbands (both soldiers, who were friends before the war) find themselves trying to push her to the other. In the end, she divorces both, marries a rich man, and the two men probably live happily ever after (I don’t mean as a couple, but rather because they just got rid of that horrid woman). In the film, pushed forward to 1940, Vicky is quite a sweet girl, neglected by both husbands (one has a travelling bug, the other is married to the business) who now takes advantage of the situation to put herself centre stage. So does it work?
Well, yes and no – no, because it loses the well-built Maugham plot, as well as his razor sharp wit. No, because the script is never brilliant, the secretary was a pointless addition, Fred MacMurray isn’t as likeable as he should have been (I spent my time rooting for Melvyn Douglas). Yes, because it’s actually funny at times, because Melvyn Douglas and Harry Davenport are very good, and Jean Arthur pulls it most of the time. Yes, because you can never guess which one she is going to choose – i.e. there is no obvious ending, unlike “My Favourite Wife” (same year, very similar premise) where Gail Patrick just begs to be abandoned. Actually, the ending is quite astonishing by itself – despite the fact that her marriage to Melvyn Douglas being declared void (because MacMurray was alive), the film seems to suggest a ménage a trois – think Coward’s “Design for Living” but without the gay component. I was left wondering how it survived the Hays Office – adultery was not meant to be fun.
It’s not a masterpiece, but I am quite happy that films like this are still put on the market, despite the economic downturn, despite a slowdown in DVD sales and releases, despite a growing lack of interest for films not produced in the last 10 years. It made me laugh, and reminded me why I love comedies of the period so much.