This post reveals the ending of the classic film Too Many Husbands. It is impossible to "spoil" a great work of capital-A Art, however, if you don't want to know the ending, don't read the 13th and 14th paragraphs below -- the ones with asterisks.
Set your TiVo's to "PERVERSION" tomorrow, February 23 at 8:45 AM EST, as TCM will be running the Perverted Movie Classic Too Many Husbands, with Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, and Melvyn Douglas, based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham.
The film features the delightful Ms. Arthur as a woman called Vicky Cardew, whose husband Bill (MacMurray) has been reported drowned in a boating accident. Although no body is found, he's declared legally dead after six months and she turns to Bill's best friend and business partner Henry Lowndes (Douglas) for comfort. And love. And marriage. In fact, the two of them can't wait to get married, themselves, apparently. They certainly didn't wait too long.
As the film opens, Bill's name is being removed from the doors of the office that Bill and Henry shared. This is a mere one year after Bill's fateful accident. They are attempting to remove all trace of the man, including even photos. Unfortunately for them, Bill is still alive, having spent a year shipwrecked on an island that nobody had ever heard of. After a shave and a plane ride home, he's met at the airport by Vicky and Henry, who can't bring themselves to tell them that they're now married.
So they sit there, for the entire ride back to the home that Vicky and Bill had shared, and listen to him dreamily muse on how great it's going to be to spend the night making love to the wife he hasn't seen in a year. Oh, how painful it all is!
Finally, they do tell him. And then, both husbands begin fighting for Vicky's affections. Because Vicky is portrayed by the lovely, charming, and beautiful Ms. Jean Arthur, this makes complete sense. If you had married Jean Arthur, would you give her up without a fight? Even if her presumed dead first husband returned? Even if you found out she'd married someone else during the year you'd been away?
Neither man will leave the house, so Vicky puts them both in a guest bedroom. So much for the wonderful night Bill had been dreaming about. But it's about to get a lot worse for the two husbands.
Vicky likes both men. After all, she married both of them. However, she doesn't like either of them enough to actually choose one over the other. So she makes them compete for her affections. She encourages them to compete for her affections. In fact, she makes them insane -- at one point, to display their strength, the men literally begin leaping over furniture in the living room. What else can they do? They're out of ideas!
Jump over the love seat! Jump over a chair!
That is how crazed these men become.
Of course, both men are physically injured, mirroring the psychic damage that Vicky is inflicting upon them. She just -- can't -- bring -- herself -- to -- choose.
But this is an American comedy from 1940. She's got to choose one of them, right?
*Maybe. At one point late in the film, a judge rules that Bill is Vicky's legal husband. But that doesn't settle things. Not at all. And it leads to one of the best endings of any film ever made. It's one of those I-can't-believe-they-did-that-in-a-mainstream-movie scenes that you can't believe you just saw, even though you just saw it. It's more daring, original, and subversive than most films that are today celebrated for their "edginess."
*Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, and Melvyn Douglas participate in what has got to be one of mainstream American cinema's first FMM three-ways. No, they don't get naked in a bed together -- it's a lot more subtle than that. The three of them dance together. It's metaphorical. And the dance is a consummation of their continued living arrangement, with Vicky having decided, well, nothing at all. She wants both men. And they are her willing partners in her little dance.
With lesser performers this movie wouldn't have worked at all. Both Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas are charming and good-looking enough that they could probably have any woman they wanted. But they want Jean Arthur.
Have you seen Jean Arthur?
Beautiful, charming, funny, smart, and superhot. As the great singer and songwriter Robbie Fulks sang,
So who can blame Messrs MacMurray and Douglas?
The film actually lightens the source material, the play entitled "Home and Beauty" by W. Somerset Maugham. For one thing, Bill is presumed killed during the first World War. In fact, he has had amnesia and spent time in a German prison. The Vicky character is insufferable and even shallower than as portrayed in the film. For instance, she says things like,
When my first husband was killed, poor darling, I went all to pieces. My bust simply went to nothing. I couldn’t wear a low dress for months.Moreover, she treats Frederick, Bill's best friend and her new husband, abominably (as you might expect from someone who would utter such a line as that quoted above). And on top of all that, Victoria actually wants to marry another man, a member of parliament with an uncanny knack for obtaining rationed goods.
The best friends, the two husbands, spend the proceedings not trying to win Victoria's favor, but in trying to get themselves out of the horrendous marriage to a horrendous woman. For her part, Victoria decides that, because soldiers are no longer fashionable, she will divorce both of them. The third act is spent satirizing England's divorce laws. It's a great classic in its own right, with an ending that seems less shocking today than it probably did back in 1919.