His eyes upon the stones, he reach’d the home
Where Annie lived and loved him, and his babes
In those far-off seven happy years were born;
But finding neither light nor murmur there
(A bill of sale gleam’d thro’ the drizzle) crept
Still downward thinking `dead or dead to me!’
One would not read Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poem “Enoch Arden” and immediately think of comedy. However, the tragic story of a shipwrecked sailor who comes home to find his wife remarried was remade into a comedy three times: First in 1940 as the slapstick Irene Dunne vehicle “My Favorite Wife,” then in 1962 as Marilyn Monroe’s sexy-but-unfinished film “Something’s Got To Give,” and finally in 1963 as “Move Over, Darling,” a chaster version with Doris Day. In all 3 films, Ellen Arden comes home after 5-7 years shipwrecked to discover that her husband has had her legally declared dead and has remarried mere hours before her arrival. Bigamy-as-comedy would be a tough sell for a film under the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), especially since the premise doesn’t exactly uphold “the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home.” And since as I discussed before, the Hays Code existed at least in name from 1932 to 1967, I’m going to talk today about how each of these films dodged, upheld, or outright defied the Hays Code.
Since “My Favorite Wife” was the film made when the Hays Code was the strongest, it would be easy to assume that this is the most conservative film. But what’s the fun in that? Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, and director Garson Kanin may obey the letter of the law, but their spirit is playfully wicked. Basically, the way so-called “perversions” are handled (and there are a lot of them) is by first making the joke and then backpedaling just enough to prove it’s not true.
For instance, since technically Cary Grant’s character is guilty of bigamy (and he’s being very slow telling his second wife), he must be punished. So, near the end of the film he’s arrested. However, he manages to explain to the judge that since his first wife is legally dead, he can’t legally be a bigamist. (Also, she can’t legally be in contempt of court, which gives Irene Dunne the opportunity to call the judge an idiot to his face several times.)
Second example: those who know Cary Grant’s later, masculine roles may be surprised that early on, many jokes revolved around his more feminine attributes. So, why not put him in a dress? This scene happens near the middle. Cary Grant is caught getting his first wife a dress (she wants it to look nice so he’s trying to see what matches), while downstairs his second wife’s therapist analyzes his, erm, unwillingness. There’s a tricky bit of writing going on. The shrink theorizes that Cary Grant might be impotent because he’s gay (because he’s in a dress), but since the shrink can’t actually say that (“Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden”), Grant completely misinterprets the his accusations and is out the door before his second wife can confront him. And that is the story of how Cary Grant got away with wearing a dress in a movie at the height of the Hays Code.
By the time 1962 rolled around, the Hays Code was limping, thanks in part to an earlier film Marilyn Monroe starred in (that also featured cross-dressing), “Some Like It Hot.” According to the Hays Code, seduction is “never the proper subject for comedy,” and “complete nudity is never permitted,” but “Something’s Got To Give” planned to blow both of those restrictions right out of the water, literally. One of the few completed scenes in the film features Marilyn swimming nude in a pool and calling to her husband (Dean Martin) to join her, while his second wife (Cyd Charisse) is on the phone in the next room. There isn’t much more to say about this film, unfortunately, since it was suspended and scrapped after Monroe’s suicide. 37 minutes of it are available at tail-end of a documentary called “Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days.” It looks like it could have been a fun movie.
There is not another actress that could be more the antithesis of Monroe’s sexy image than the squeaky-clean Doris Day, so the 1963 “Move Over, Darling” is a tonal about-face. The paradox of the film is that even though it has the freedom of a defeated Hays Code to do whatever it likes, in order to conform to Day’s image it is the most conservative of the three versions. For instance, the scene discussing Adam, Ellen’s fellow survivor, reads as follows:
Ellen: “Oh Grace, there was a man on that island with me!”
Grace: “How marvelous. No wonder you look so well. But you silly girl. Why did you tell Nick?”
I think it’s safe to say that would never have flown in 1940 (Survey says: “Adultery… must not be explicitly treated…”) However, Irene Dunne was happy to let Cary Grant stew in the possibility that she slept with a very hunky man for 7 years (again without explicitly saying anything, because after all, she didn’t). Doris Day’s reaction is to pummel Adam and holler “For 5 years you’ve been nothing but a big fat pain in my neck chasing me around that island, and I told you I never want to look at your wolfish face again!” With that, Doris Day’s honor is thoroughly upheld, so that the audience and her husband can know that she would NEVER do ANYTHING like that.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Of the three films, “My Favorite Wife” is the funniest exactly because it had to creatively deal with its subject matter to avoid the ire of the Hays Office. Of course, the Hays Office’s inability to specifically address some of the “ickier” perversions, it allowed some loopholes, and even occasionally gaffed itself. In the Code’s own words, “[film] reaches places unpenetrated by other forms of art.” And if you read something dirty into that, then you could have been a Hays Code screenplay writer.