A young man falls in love with a girl from a rich family. His unorthodox plan to go on holiday for the early years of his life is met with skepticism by everyone except for his fiancée's eccentric sister and long suffering brother.
Ellen Arden arrives 7 years after being given up for dead in a shipwreck, to find her husband Nick just remarried to Bianca. The overjoyed Nick awkwardly tries to break the news gently to Bianca. But before he can do that, an unpleasant surprise--news that Ellen has spent the 7 years on a deserted island with fellow-survivor Burkett. Nick's jealousy tries to find out the truth. Hilarious confusion reigns before Nick chooses his favorite wife. Written by
Riaz Shaikh <email@example.com>
Garson Kanin's best films are so bright, fast and funny, and have been plundered by so many pallid, feel-good imitators, that it's easy to overlook how courageously critical they can be, of prevailing social norms, for instance, what society takes to be normal - 'natural' - about crucial concepts like family, gender, marriage etc. In 'My Favorite wife', Kanin takes the idea that a particular social order is natural, and tears it apart, by putting civilisation on one side, nature on the other, and revealing that there's nothing remotely natural about civilisation, or our places in it; that these things are man-made, and so can be questioned, negotiated, even changed by man (or, as is more usual in Kanin's world, woman).
'Wife' opens with an elaborate sequence showing the structure of civilisation at work in its most intrinsic form - the legal system. The hero is a lawyer, and is trying to declare his missing first wife dead so he can marry another. There are a few things we notice here: the judge is hilarious, a cantankerous old buffer, testy, capricious, and not at all rigorous, or even knowledgeable in his application of laws which, after all, structure people's lives, and which, we learn, are constantly overturned by the Court of Appeals, so that something that should be inviolable is shown to be provisional. there is room for manoeuvre, but there is also room for corruption.
More important for Kanin's purposes are two incidental details. The wife has been missing for seven years, a fairy-tale or mythical number in a site of legal process, undermining its claims to ultimate, 'official' reality. The hero's name is Arden, which might remind us of Shakespeare's Forest ('As you like it'), and the spirit of play that will inform the film, with people assuming and discarding roles, putting on costumes, using props, putting on 'plays' or performances to deceive, enlighten or outmanoeuvre others.
On one level, this warns us against accepting appearances in a civilised world that depends on appearances (all the talk about respectability); on another, it shows that certain roles - like being a mother, or husband - aren't God-given, but roles which have to be constantly rehearsed and refined. Play can be subversive - the way Ellen Arden dresses up as a man, breaks up a marriage, or tries to conceal a possible adultery - but it is also seen as a necessary process of socialisation: the children learn to imitate their parents, as they theatrically make their lost mother 'perform' her confession. They learn that society is fluid, not fixed; they also learn to lie. (the hero winds up in an Attic (as in Greek comedy), but that might be taking the analogy to far!)
Hitchcock once said that he often used Cary Grant because he wanted to work against his established image. But the figure of masculine immaturity and insecurity so richly realised in Roger O Thornhill ('North by Northwest') is already fully-formed here in a 'hero' who jumps at any chance to avoid making difficult decisions. Kanin, like Hitchcock later, makes brilliant, ironic use of Grant's most famous previous roles: 'Topper', another story about a professional flustered by a 'ghost'; and, especially, 'Bringing up baby', not just in the comically ghastly leopardskin bathrobe his second wife buys him, but in the animal imagery used throughout (kids going to the zoo; Steve as Tarzan etc.), contrasting with his civilised world that is making him desperately unhappy, his identity and masculine certainty fragmenting. (knowledge that Grant used to live with Randolph Scott adds further comic potency to their scenes)
This conflict between Nick's civilisation and the 'natural' order is typically complicated - Nick clearly married Bianca for her sexual prowess; Ellen and Nick are compatible because of their intellectual superiority to everyone else (which gives a streak of cruelty to their games, and makes one feel genuinely sorry for BIanca).
'Wife' is a masterpiece of farce, of shared rooms, opening and shutting doors, frustrated sexuality, mixed identities - but what makes it a true classic are the flashes of whimsy - the Steve diving sequence that results in some the most bizarre, incongruous, and sidesplittingly funny visions ever seen on film.
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