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It is hard to believe that there was a time when some of the last century's
greatest artists were considered mere entertainers: Hitchcock made
thrillers, Sirk made weepies, Hawks made comedies. Of course, we now know
that these auteurs worked in genres that many other directors worked in, but
transcended them by subversion, critique, extension, parody, genius.
There aren't so many English genres - the documentary-style war film is probably the most persistent - but in the 1950s, there were a spate of comedies that ran the gamut from glossily glamorous (GENEVIEVE etc.) to the cheerfully cheap (all those precursors to the CARRY ONs, like TWO WAY STRETCH and TOO MANY CROOKS), all of which invariably starred a small pool of exceptional players, including Alistair Sim, Terry-Thomas, Kenneth More, George Cole, John le Mesurier, Michael Hordern, etc.
Like most generic products, these films were modest, content to entertain in an unsurprising fashion, which they did. But, as with every genre, there is always a superior artist who expands its limits. Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat may not, as a directorial team, reach the dizzy heights of the Archers, but, since writing THE LADY VANISHES for Hitch in 1938, they produced a steady stream of highly literate and cinematically inventive comedies, which, while smuggling in complex and disturbing ideas, never failed the first duty of comedy, which is to be funny.
THE CONSTANT HUSBAND may not be a masterpiece, but it is extraordinarily daring. A lot of critics like to talk about disjunction and alienation implied in films, disturbances in character, crisis in identity, but it's rare to find a supposedly frothy comedy which has this as its overt subject matter. A man (Rex Harrison) wakes up dazed in a strange country with a strange language, no idea who he is, or how he got there.
With the help of a professor of psychiatry, Llewellyn (THE LADYKILLERS' Cecil Parker), he pieces together his life, and discovers that they are indeed pieces, that he is a cad, a gold-digger and a bigamist, who hit on women with the prospect of wealth, and dumped them when it fell through. He is rather appalled by his past, and is brought to court for bigamy. Yet such is his charm that all his normally intelligent wives pay for his defence, and declare they would gladly take him back.
From the opening sequence, you know you are watching something special, as Gilliat presents us with a series of fragments (a lampshade, a view out the window, a wardrobe mirror) as a dazed man comes back to consciousness. We do not see him first, but his reflection, as he looks in the mirror; the sequence is very broken in its editing to suggest the characters alienation from himself. In one hilarious sequence, he ponders the various possibilities of who he is - judge, priest, sportsman etc. - which are visualised in the mirror.
And this is what the film essentially is, a detective story, as a man searches for himself, his true identity. As such, it can be counted as an early anti-detective film, three years before VERTIGO. Unlike a normal detective, objectively analysing a crime, Harrison is personally involved; like Oedipus, the first detective, he is the answer to the question. But it is not a reassuring answer - the further Harrison searches the truth, the more diffuse that answer is - he is not one person, he is a series of endlessly proliferating identities, an abstraction made concrete in the number of wives he collects. And while this might seem to minimise women, it obliterates him until he becomes nothing. This leads to genuine, if comic, bewilderment in the court, as legal questions of identity and responsibility take on an ontological aspect.
This is a man who has so effaced himself that he can no longer live in the world, and sees prison as a refuge. I think it was Andre Breton who once suggested that Surrealism never took off in England because its desperate normality is already so surreal, and it is amazing how many predictions of the late Bunuel can be found here, as in so many English comedies of the period.
The great thing, though, is how accessible all this is: the comedy is expert and witty; the identity mystery compelling; the ending up in mysterious Wales mind-boggling. The faded 50s colour is beautiful, doubly so when you think of the monochrome uniformity of the war films that dominated the period; and the old hands in the cast are a joy, as is sexy Rexy, who cannot help (unconsciously?) repeating his past mistakes, adding another ironical layer to the film.
In 'The Constant Husband' a man loses his memory, and then recovers it to find that he has an unusually large number of women in his life. The success of a comedy like this hinges on the strength of the leading actor; Rex Harrison carries it off very well. The character he plays is comparatively wealthy and over-privileged, and it is not easy for this viewer to forget than life in the mid 1950s was considerably less comfortable for the vast majority of people in Britain. Among the glamorous and less-than-glamorous supporting actors are Kay Kendall, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker, George Cole and Michael Hordern. The script includes some sort of running joke about Wales which, being from Wales, I failed to understand.
This is certainly a film to savor for marvelous performances and the
style of an almost fine film maker as he slowly peels back the layers
of the onion skin of a story with the audience struggling right along
with the lead (the always charming Rex Harrison) to find out who and
what he is after he comes to in a seaside Welsh hotel with no memory of
Unfortunately, the original ad campaign seriously undercut the chief interest in the film as a light hearted mystery, trying to lure audiences with a presumably "racy" tag line about the "Intimate revelations" of Rex's character who "went one better than Henry VIII" (all told in "Blushing Technicolor")! Tack that onto a plot which, once the past nature of Rex's character was revealed, had no where to go even with a courtroom full of women still anxious to throw themselves at him, and you can readily understand THE CONSTANT HUSBAND going straight to TV in the U.S. - the first relatively major film to do so - not getting a theatrical release for two years.
You certainly cannot blame the sterling cast for the film's ultimate letdown - any film with BOTH Margaret Leighton and Kay Kendall (the soon-to-be Mrs. Rex and reputedly the love of his many partnered life off-screen) AND droll performances from Cecil Parker, Robert Coote, Michael Hordern, Valerie French and a generous bevy of other beauties is going to hold the viewer's delighted interest right up to the end. If the film HAD an end or any idea how to end, I suspect it would be a perennial which we would play constantly on both sides of the Atlantic like so many of the sublime Ealing comedies, rather than only now (in 2010) enjoying a British DVD release with no likelihood of being offered in the Colonies.
Instead, THE CONSTANT HUSBAND (a/k/a MARRIAGE ALA MODE - no relation to the brilliantly satirical Hogarth painting) just peters out - leaving a hint in the resemblance of the leading ladies what a better director (than Sidney Gilliat) might have done with the property had he chosen to have ALL the women in Rex's life played by the same actress (either Kendall or Leighton would have been marvelous) the way Alec Guinness famously played all the doomed members of the D'Ascoyne family six years earlier in the dazzling KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. Just that little touch of style might have made all the difference. It might have even made the lame final fade out make some sense...the 84 minutes which preceded it were such fun.
The 1950s were an awful decade for comedy--censorship was strict, and middle-class manners were corseted so tight as to induce hysteria. This movie has a supposedly comic situation, but there is no funny dialogue, no funny scenes. There is just a lot of embarrassment, which is supposed to be ipso facto terribly amusing. The script is careless--Rex Harrison is a man who marries women for money, but his Italian wife clearly doesn't have much (she has, though, a stupendous bust and a foreign accent, and gestures a lot, all of which are, of course, terribly amusing to proper English people). The film begins with Harrison waking up in a hotel, not knowing who he is. Well, how could he have registered without giving a name? The laziness of the whole enterprise is grossly condescending to the viewing public in general and to women in particular.
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