My Favorite Wife is a pleasant little slice of a cinematic cake, which is delectable on its own, and becomes all the more fascinating when considering the inspiration and influence of this little film, and the off-camera real-life dramas surrounding it.
In the opening scene, Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has his wife, Ellen (Irene Dunne), a photographer who has been missing for seven years after going down in a shipwreck, declared legally dead, and then has the same judge marry him to Bianca (Gail Patrick). Later that same day, Ellen returns from the island where she has been stranded only to hear from her mother-in-law (Ann Shoemaker), that Nick has remarried. Ellen launches a scheme to win back her husband and two kids (Scotty Beckett and Mary Lou Harrington), which is complicated when the man she was stranded with for seven years (Randolph Scott) returns and they resume their habit of calling each other “Adam” and “Eve.” Ellen fights to win back Nick, while he frets over what might have have happened during Adam and Eve’s time together, and the whole thing ends in predictable screwball comedy fashion.
It was a surprise to learn that the script was based on the 1864 Alfred Lord Tennyson poem “Enoch Arden.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) The poem tells the story of merchant seaman Enoch Arden, who shares a last name with Cary Grant’s character, returning home ten years after a shipwreck to find his wife married to his childhood rival. My Favorite Wife also has a complicated remake history. In 1962, George Cukor began directing the remake Something’s Got to Give, envisioned as a comeback vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, who hadn’t made a film in over a year. The film was to star Monroe in the Irene Dunne role, Dean Martin in the Cary Grant role, Cyd Charisse as Bianca, and Wally Cox as the timid shoe salesman who poses as “Adam” in order to ally Nick’s fears. Production problems set in almost immediately. Monroe missed her first day of work and many after, then took a holiday to go to New York to sing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. Exasperated, Cukor fired Monroe and was trying to get her replaced with Lee Remick, when Dean Martin backed out. The production shut down, and another remake, Move Over, Darling was made the following year with Doris Day and James Gardner.
There was also plenty going on behind the scenes in the casting of My Favorite Wife. Earlier in his career, Grant was often pressured by studio execs to date young starlets, a common practice at the time, used to generate publicity, and it Grant’s case, to offset circulating rumors that the sauve leading man was homosexual. One of the starlets he was photographed during this time was Gail Patrick, who plays the “kissless” second Mrs. Arden. In his early years in Hollywood, Grant’s roommate and constant companion was Randolph Scott, who plays his rival here. There has long been speculation that the two actors were long-time lovers, and Grant biographer Marc Eliot writes as if this were a fact, while Scott’s surviving family have denied the rumors. In either case, the two were extremely close and also extremely competitive, so it must have caused a bit of friction between them to be cast in the same film, as Grant was at the pinnacle of his long career and the most in-demand actor in Hollywood, while Scott had been starring mostly in B films, although he would later find his forte in Western films. The casting of Grant and Dunne together was calculated to cash in on the earlier runaway success of The Awful Truth (1937), although the two stars reportedly did not get along so well off camera.