Wives and Lovers (1963) ***

Key name here is Jay Presson Allen. You may remember her for giving theatrical and then cinematic shape to Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The clarity she brought to both stage and movie productions resulting in critical kudos and box office. She would do the same with Cabaret (1972). And, undeniably, in Wives and Lovers she was also prophetic. Had it been filmed under the title of the play from which it was adapted, Allen’s The First Wife, we would not have been acknowledging the insight so much of The First Wives Club nearly three decades later.  

By shape of course we mean structure and there’s not much you can do when the source is a Broadway hit other than expanding it out away from the inherent staginess. And here nobody makes the mistake of trying. This belongs to the tag end of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy when innocents are not too badly punished for their errant ways and generally see the light at the end.

Here, struggling writer Bill (Van Johnson), financially supported by dental hygienist wife Bertie (Janet Leigh), hits the jackpot when his novel is published, becomes a Book-of-the-Month-Club (extra loot), is purchased by Hollywood (more loot) and is turned into a play (even more loot) by the author. As if he has swallowed a lorryload of steroids, the quiet spoken somewhat child-pecked Bill ups sticks to more fashionable Connecticut and charges headfirst into temptation. this appears in the form of cocktail parties, Hollywood stars, sexy agent Lucinda (Martha Hyer) and every excuse to spend endless nights on the town rather than cuddling up at home with Bertie and working out how to make the new-fangled stereo work.

There’s not much to this other than your standard three-act play: initial enjoyment of success, the aforementioned temptation, and coming to the kind of understanding that couples in the early 1960s were still permitted before divorce appeared the more convenient and adult option.

On hand to warn against that option is disillusioned divorced first wife neighbot Fran (Shelley Winters) whose “companion” (his position is left comfortably vague) Wylie (Ray Walston) spends most of his time belittling their interior décor. Also on hand to show how difficult it is to fit into the upmarket set is snippy housemaid (Lee Patrick). With neighbors and maid on hand to put her in her place, and husband rarely around to help her explore their newfound status, it’s hardly surprising that Bertie, assuming Bill’s late nights include some illicit romance, tries to find solace with predatory Hollywood star Gar (Jeremy Slate), neatly fitting into this jigsaw as the proposed leading man of the stage adaptation and as Fran’s ex-.

So, basically, it’s the usual comedy of errors, though for a time Bill does seem hellbent on making the most of a mid-life crisis. While it’s strewn with good and often funny lines, the timing of the actors often fails to accommodate them, so it’s kind of helter-skelter at some points. It’s pretty easy to move in high-falutin’ circles because everyone you meet goes by the moniker of “Sweetie.” On reaching a marital crisis, the couple resolve the situation in a clever, humorous manner.  

Certainly, it’s the gentlest of comedies, but no worse for that and although former MGM matinee idol Van Johnson (Divorce American Style, 1967) takes a sledgehammer to his role, not least from trying to stop Jeremy Slate (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) from stealing the picture, in fact it’s the more subtle performance of Janet Leigh (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962) that keeps the movie ticking over, assisted by, in less combustible form than usual, Shelley Winters (A House Is Not a Home, 1965). The most worldly-wise character on show is daughter Julie (Claire Wilcox).

In one of those bizarre Hollywood anomalies, since Allen at this time was not a screenwriter figure of any importance, the more experienced Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) was handed the job, but with already such a cleverly contrived structure it’s hard to see what he brought to the party. Television director John Rich (The New Interns, 1964) doesn’t bring much more than the innate skill of knowing when to leave well alone.

Likeable enough, especially to see Janet Leigh in one of her rare starring roles in the decade. No intellectual exertion required.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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