'Favorite Wife': Untidy Spousekeeping

Finding out too late that his legally dead first wife is very much alive, Los Angeles lawyer Nicholas Arden, played by Cary Grant, mistakenly marries one woman too many in the playful 1940 comedy "My Favorite Wife."

On his wedding day, Nicholas' first wife, Ellen, who disappeared in a shipwreck seven years earlier, returns to find that she has just been declared dead and that her husband has remarried.

She races to meet Nicholas at the couple's hotel and arrives just in time to make a shambles of the honeymoon. Although Nicholas still loves Ellen, he wants to do the right thing by both wives--if only he knew what that was. But meanwhile he keeps his second wife, played by Gail Patrick, in the dark, dodging her on their wedding night by conjuring up fake phone calls, bogus business trips and a sudden overpowering urge to go get a shave.

Ellen, played by Irene Dunne, delights in needling Nicholas over his indecision about how to choose between the two, and plays on his guilt. But when he discovers that her days on the desert island were spent with a handsome, athletic-looking man (Randolph Scott), her cat-and-mouse game turns on her.

Scenes in the hotel, where two Mrs. Ardens baffle the bellboys and Nicholas indignantly defends his respectability to a doubtful manager, are hilarious.

In the end, during the resulting divorce proceeding which doubles as a hearing reviewing Ellen's "legally dead" status, quips and barbs shoot back and forth between characters as fast as bullets. Exchanges between Ellen and a fussy judge who hears the resulting divorce case are especially funny. For example, her wisecracks earn her rebukes and then fines from the judge, but she points out that she doesn't have to pay; she is, after all, dead.

Music throughout the black-and-white movie is wonderfully tied to the action. It acts like a punch line in some scenes, such as when Ellen first sees the new couple: The audience hears the wedding march played like a funeral dirge.

"My Favorite Wife" (1940), directed by Garson Kanin. 88 minutes. Not rated.

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