The ultimate screwball comedy dilemma… “Too Many Husbands”. That is the problem that dear, sweet Vicky (Jean Arthur) must face in this witty, highly entertaining screwball comedy from 1940. Vicky was happily married to Bill (Fred MacMurray), who went away on a month-long boating trip, and after some kind of incident, was assumed drowned. Within six months, Vicky has remarried, this time to Henry (Melvyn Douglas), who not only is Bill’s former business partner, but also his best friend. Now, another six months later, Bill has been rescued from a deserted island and has returned, much to everyone’s surprise, as well as his own bewilderment. Vicky is now faced with the monumental moral decision: does she go back to her original husband, or just continue on as if he was still dead?
Just in case she needs any help, both men are dead set on competing for her affections, which incidentally, gives Vicky a little too much enjoyment. The more they fight over her, the more pleasure she seems to receive. She also has the guidance of her father (Harry Davenport), although she doesn’t seem very inclined to listen to him anyway. He’s just there for an extra bit of humor, and (much in the way Davenport did throughout his career) he doesn’t disappoint.
“Too Many Husbands” is based on the 1919 play “Home and Beauty,” by W. Somerset Maugham, which in turn is based (or at least inspired) by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Enoch Arden”. It is also not the only film version based on Tennyson’s work that was released in 1940. Leo McCarey wrote and directed a somewhat similar version of this story, “My Favorite Wife” (1940), starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Although many of the plot points are the same, each has its strengths, and focuses on separate details of the characters’ precarious situation, leaving plenty of room for screwball fun.
Where “Too Many Husbands” stands out is in the cast, with their amazing chemistry and highly enjoyable repartee. Arthur treats each of her husbands with a love and admiration that really exemplifies how deeply she cares for each of them. She loves them both, wants them both, and at several points seems to be contemplating how she might be able to finagle some way to remain with both of them. Jean Arthur thrives in screwball comedies, and “Too Many Husbands” is no exception. It gives her ample opportunities to make us love everything about her.
Despite MacMurray’s and Douglas’ characters despising the situation that has been thrust upon them, their still have a friendship and bond, that runs deeply underneath everything else. Their witty banter makes the uncomfortable nature of the story fade with a relative ease. Both are large, strong, towering men, but when faced with losing Arthur, they seem to revert back to young boys on a school-yard, vying for her attentions; and they do it well.
The strength of this film is also its greatest weakness, however. We love these three characters so much, we don’t want anyone to be left out. We want to see this situation work itself, even though it’s obvious that it can’t. The filmmakers were clearly undecided on how they wanted their own film to end, and therefore made it hard for everyone in the audience to be satisfied. Although there is no clear “happy ending” waiting for everyone, that doesn’t make the ride any less enjoyable.