Monday, November 18, 2013

Liberated Loretta

The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) is about two extremely obnoxious people, who are supposedly funny when they get together. Loretta Young plays June Cameron, author of the bestselling book "Spinsters aren't Spinach," a tome that urges women to be independent, and seek careers rather than marriage.  Ray Milland is Dr. Timothy Sterling, a medical school instructor and researcher in head pain.  They meet at an inn, when June, desperate to return to New York, intrudes herself into Tim's car, and demands (yes, demands!) that he drive her home.  During a stop, a young boy accidentally attaches a "Just Married" sign to Tim's car, and the local telegrapher is horrified to discover her hero (June) is married!  To avoid scandal, June's publisher convinces her to pretend marriage (she'll also get another book out of it - "Marriage Ain't Measles"), and then "divorce" Tim once it is published.  Tim agrees when he is given a long sought-after promotion BECAUSE he is married.

The biggest problem with this film is that neither Tim nor June is particularly likeable.  June intrudes herself into Tim's car (too cheap to get a taxi?), then refuses to reimburse him for gas or her lunch (for which he paid), then breaks a piece of his medical equipment (a head, which bears remarkable resemblance to a Chia pet) because it looks like her hatbox.  Certainly, Tim has more reason to be obnoxious (he didn't request her company or expenses), but then he proceeds to pay her debt by getting drunk on her liquor, and falling asleep in her bed.  One would think that the approximately $2 he was out was worth losing to get away from her.

We're all fond of Ray Milland, though most of us are more familiar with his dramatic work (The Uninvited, The Lost Weekend, Ministry of Fear), than with his comedies.  That being said, we're all fans of The Major and the Minor, and looked forward to seeing him again in a comedy.  The problem with The Doctor Takes a Wife is that it isn't all that funny.  It has some funny moments, but the leads end up being more of a hindrance than a benefit, and the screwball elements - like the scene where Tim runs back and forth between apartments (in an effort to keep his medical colleagues and his fiance apart) - strain credulity.  The plot is so segmented that it just doesn't hold together very well, and June's very abrupt reversal regarding Tim is hard to believe.
The characters that we would loved to have seen more of were Marilyn Thomas, played with verve by Gail Patrick and the always wonderful Edmund Gwenn, as Tim's father Dr. Lionel Sterling.  Gwenn is barely used - an absolute shame, as his character was just lovely, and he is such an excellent actor.  Patrick here is (again), the other woman.  Except, if you look at it closely, June really is the other woman - Marilyn and Tim are engaged when the whole marriage ruse is cooked up.  If Marilyn is a bit much, it is merely a device to make her more unappealing than June (and it's hard to make someone more unappealing that June).  It's Marilyn who is the wronged party; she is quite loyal to Tim, even after she believes he has married someone else while she was out of town.

Reginald Gardiner playing June's publisher (and would-be husband) is really just playing the same character he played in Christmas in Connecticut.  John is even more unlikeable than June, and is openly dishonest - it's his idea to milk the pretend marriage for yet another advise book (from a woman who knows nothing about the subject).  He's even planning for a "divorce" book once June is able to ditch Tim.
The film's opening scene is a lovely, idealized view of the contemporary bookstore.  Another fantastic set design is June's two-story New York City apartment.  Her book is obviously doing well - among other touches, the apartment has a lovely spiral staircase up to the balcony.

It's also interesting to note that the title "Spinsters aren't Spinach" was probably influenced by the book "Fashion is Spinach" by fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes, which was published in 1938.  One of our group discovered the title's multiple copies in her library (which has a fashion focus).  She suspects that the book was very popular in those days since since so many copies were available.

Another little oddity in the film was June's display of a knitted baby sweater.  Never mind her complete about face regarding marital bliss.  As someone who knits, the author is rather perplexed at how she knit that thing so quickly! 

Just to get an idea of the reception of the film in 1940, we took a look at this rather blah New York Times review.   The problem, we think is that the film is trying to be screwball, but is it really? Does one farcical scene make a screwball comedy?  It's not the worst movie ever done, but neither is it really top of the game for any of the leads.  Here's a trailer from the film, to give you a chance to decide for yourself.

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