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Acteurism: Joel McCrea in "He Married His Wife"

Joel McCrea tackles the screwball comedy of re-marriage opposite Nancy Kelly in Roy del Ruth's 1940 film for Fox.
With such a definitive and spoiler-happy title as “He Married His Wife” (even with pronouns lending a level of mystery), plot quickly becomes unimportant. Even the contemporary micro-genre this 1940 film fills, the comedy of remarriage, immediately announces T.H. Randall’s (Joel McCrea) eventual reunion with estranged wife Valerie (Nancy Kelly). In order for the couple to come together, both actors must switch between clown and straight-man acts at screwball pace using the supporting cast as colorful props.
This outline worked well for Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) two years earlier, but that had the remarkable advantage of both Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, both known for versatility in anything their studio would throw at them. Conversely, 20th Century Fox put director Roy Del Ruth to the task of He Married His Wife as a workman director capable of identifying the strengths of a trending narrative style for economic opportunity.* Without a Grant or a Hepburn to steal the frame, Ruth had to settle with stone-faced cowboy McCrea and trouble-bound maiden Kelly. 
After celebrating a year of divorce under the guise of happiness, Valerie has Randall served and arrested for not paying his monthly alimony. McCrea’s Randy returns to his first love (and the catalyst for the couple’s split), the racetrack, only to find Valerie entering the betting pool as well. Mutual friend Paul (Lyle Talbot) also makes an appearance, giving Randy the ideal scheme for ridding his alimony troubles: just marry the two of them off. This opportunity becomes even more apparent when rich proprietress Ethel (Mary Boland) invites the whole lot to her spacious estate Duck Point. As Randy forces the new couple together, a suave outsider Freddie (Cesar Romero), steals Kelly from both of them. Though Freddie’s courting would mean no more alimony charges, Randy is suddenly no longer comfortable with his plans.
There are no selfless characters in this universe: Randy acts only to rid his alimony (first by playing with Paul, then by his own intervention), Valerie flirts only to make her ex jealous (carrying a big smile every time he’s uncomfortable), Paul and Freddie don’t hide their mission to win over Valerie, and Ethel seems to have instigated this gathering in the first place just to get closer to Randy. Where Dead End would make McCrea an indecisive mess around potential partners, He Married His Wife forces him in a position to be downright caustic to women. He’ll rarely, if ever, make eye contact with Kelly during the first two acts, using a third party to communicate his mistrust and disdain for her covert actions. That signature boyish grin comes out only when confessing his manipulation to lawyer friend Bill (Roland Young). Instead, most of his screentime, including several close-ups, incorporate an ugly scowl spilling putrid sarcasm at his monetary fate. Advances from the much older Boland are met with a hand-waving flippancy or something resembling terror.
This is genuinely reckless for the very foundation of McCrea’s screen image as his intentions and wide-eyed glee are so morally misplaced. But, when McCrea no longer stands for something, whether it is American pre-war sensibilities or Hays Code sex appeal, he’s allowed a wider range of expression. Like his mud-slinging character break in Barbary Coast, a concerned, emotionally-driven McCrea can drop his conscious posturing for something more recognizably human. When Kelly joins the table during the first morning at Duck Point, McCrea gives an accusatorial tone to “I never used to see you for breakfast.” The more Valerie toys around with tall, dark, handsome Freddie in front of Randy, the more McCrea’s posture dips inside his suit. The result leaves Randy appearing like a child wearing his father’s clothes (or maybe David Byrne in Stop Making Sense). No longer able to keep his own brand of twentieth-century cool, this shrinking is met with equal amount of hysterics from the silly McCrea lead to the screwball variations from the whole cast.
Most of the comedy in He Married His Wife comes from relatively cheap shots. Resident “brown boy” (and that really is the end of his character development) Elisha Cook Jr. shows Ethel his expertise in yoga during many of the film’s narrative breaks. This constitutes him pulling his tiny legs together, taking an exaggerated breath, puffing his cheeks, and crossing his eyes in torturous concentration, often in close-up. This elicits the routine mild amusement from the rest of the guests, but that sort of attempt at Jerry Lewis / Frank Tashlin theatrics dominates the comedic tone. With no straight-man act to latch onto, McCrea gives clown practice to what would become his physical comedy inThe More the Merrier by following up on Cook’s vying for attention, Ethel’s misplaced flirtations, and his own frustrations with Freddie’s sexual politics. McCrea even bolts, trips, and squeezes into small spaces while avoiding detection late night in Valerie’s room, only to listen to the whole of Duck Point voice their true feelings about him. What remains of his straight man act reveals itself in his active discomfort in having his power ignored and displaced in front of him—the image of the all-American masculinity unable to resolve even its most basic concerns.
That willingness to both set himself up as a middle-American handyman and subvert that image for the sake of progressive politics (Dead End), conservative heroics (The Most Dangerous Game), or traditional humor stands, as my favorite part of Joel McCrea’s star narrative. Even if one grants him that “effortless” claim to his acting on set, his effort to cultivate a certain type of character for directors to exploit remains. He Married His Wife has ridiculously low stakes: the worst that could possibly happen to these well-off characters would be a continued alimony payment from Randy, and Valerie prolonging her discomfort in her ritzy single life. The other stakes come through the sort of power play between Randy and Freddie that can be best glimpsed through their clothes. Randy wears three simple outfits during his stay at Duck Point: 1) a dull light suit with an Ivy-League low vest to contrast the sartorial high vest of Paul and the flaunty patterned ascot of Bill; 2) a dark shirt with no visible buttons, buttoned all the way with no tie, all thrown under a white suit (scandalously European); and 3) a three-button tweed herringbone sport coat (the optional top button buttoned as if to win his practical image back) falling a little too big over a pitch shirt. It’s more educated coastal elite than middle American, but compared to tanned, pencil-mustachioed, patterned-coat-and-ascot-wearing Freddie, Randy is the height of masculinity. 
That he could be out-flirted by someone who fills the half-century-prior version to Dave Barry’s colorful image of “godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts” puts a real tension on the all-Americans that could identify with McCrea’s ranch-hand candor. Could this cartoon supersede the star as the head honcho of sexual politics? In the end, it’s still a comedy of remarriage with McCrea’s Randy the victor. The joke’s on Freddie.
 
*He had previously directed an early adaptation of The Maltese Falcon in 1931 during the height of pre-Code gangster pictures (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, et al.), The Broadway Melody of 1936 during a slew of romantic musicals (Top Hat, Curly Top), and would direct a segment of Ziegfeld Follies (1945) during the heyday of vehicles for stars Lucille Ball and Judy Garland.   
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Part of our on-going series covering the Museum of Modern Art's series Acteurism: Joel McCrea.

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