The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
Frank and Madge Hammond (Donald Woods, Margaret Lindsay) are a young couple celebrating their first year of wedded bliss, and as such, their behavior is still nauseatingly lovey-dovey, with Frank presenting Madge with a fur coat as an anniversary present and Madge gifting her hubby with an overcoat. (Madge got the better bargain, to be honest.) This marital paradise is sharply contrasted with that of the couple who live next door to the Hammonds, Tom and Lois Fraser (Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly). It’s been a nineteen-year association in Casa del Fraser, and that merger is threatened by Tom’s roving eye for ladies other than his spouse.
Madge has a nice celebratory dinner planned for her beloved, but he calls her to beg off on the eats because as a boat salesman he has an opportunity to make an important sale, collecting a hefty commission in the process. (Now you know where he got the scratch for the fur coat.) The client, Bunny Fitch (Glenda Farrell), isn’t interested in sailing over the bounding main—she’s got designs on Frank, and when he figures this out he politely declines her generous offer. They’re interrupted by a knock on the door—gracious! It’s her husband!
But it isn’t: it’s randy old Tom (under the nom de womanizer “Joe Snodgrass”), who’s apparently seeing Bunny on the sly, prompting Frank to exit stage left out the fire escape (leaving his overcoat behind). A second knock on the door produces the genuine article: Colonel J. Kingsley Fitch (Hugh Herbert), a sheep rancher curious as to why there are two overcoats in the apartment (Tom has also availed himself of the exit). When Hammond and Fraser return to their respective wives, they both tell tall tales about their lost overcoats. Madge and Lois, fed up with their spouses, decide to head for the fabled land of no-fault divorce, Reno, Nevada, and Frank and Tom soon follow.
Merry Wives of Reno (1934) is a riff on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, a frenetic marital farce that received a lot of tsk-tsking upon its original release toward the end of the pre-Code era. A columnist wrote about the movie in July of that year, calling it “extreme in objectionable pictures. This film was loaded with suggestive situations and with dialogue which seemed to a majority of critics not only objectionable but scarcely even entertaining. Parents who dropped into the neighborhood theaters with their children for an evening’s entertainment found it difficult to justify this picture as either high or low comedy.”
Apart from the amorality present in the movie’s three couples—not to mention a gaggle of on-the-make divorcees populating “The Biggest Little City in the World”—Merry Wives of Reno isn’t all that daring or risqué. That’s why the marketing for the film in some ads proclaiming it “funnier than Convention City” is risible when you look at it with a lot of hindsight (Convention City was a notorious 1933 release whose alleged raciness resulted in a number of prints being destroyed by the studio, and today it is a lost film). Because the multiple divorce situations are served up with a large side order of broad burlesque, it’s relatively tame stuff.
Merry Wives is a prime example of Warner’s moviemaking running on all cylinders: it features most of their familiar contract players, and the comedy is dominated by character actor supreme Guy Kibbee. Kibbee was moviedom’s most beloved “dirty old man;” his specialty was playing lecherous sorts with an interest in backing musical shows in such films as 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933. But Kibbee also played any number of authority figures in features like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Fort Apache (1948), and with fellow Warner’s player Aline MacMahon made a number of domestic comedies similar to the Charlie Ruggles-Mary Boland Paramount romps (my favorites are The Merry Frinks and Big Hearted Herbert).
Kibbee cavorts through Merry Wives of Reno in an alcoholic fog that would have prompted Jack Norton to file a lawsuit; my favorite of Guy’s hangover scenes finds him coming to on a Reno-bound train with Woods’ Frank and remarking: “My mouth feels like a Chinese family just moved out.” (Frank: “That liquor last night was slow poison.” Tom: “Well…I’m in no hurry…”) Returning home from his tete-a-tete with Farrell, wife Donnelly looks disapprovingly at Kibbee and says scornfully: “Drunk again…” “Hooray!” he answers exuberantly. “So am I!” (Alcoholism is only funny in classic movies, so don’t try this at home, kids.)
Because they’ve been relegated to the straight wo/men roles in this comedy, both Donald Woods (an actor who could make George Brent seem exciting) and Margaret Lindsay are relatively bland, though I have warmed to Margaret recently (she turns up in a lot of these Columbia B’s I’ve been watching of late) and she is quite effective as the skeptical wife who never completely buys the line Woods is selling. But sadly, Glenda Farrell (Torchy Blane) doesn’t get much to do, and as for Hugh Herbert…well, let me just say Hugh is a personage taken best in small doses.
Warners’ mainstay Frank McHugh plays a combination of concierge and bellboy, and the supporting cast includes Hobart Cavanaugh (as a divorce lawyer), Roscoe Ates, Irving Bacon, Joe Crehan, Vivienne Oakland, and Geneva Mitchell. (Here’s an interesting tidbit: Hattie McDaniel has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo as Farrell’s domestic while Louise Beavers—also relegated to so many maid roles in these old films—grabs a more substantial part as one of Cavanaugh’s clients.) Merry Wives of Reno was director H. Bruce Humberstone’s penultimate effort at Warner Brothers before going on to a long career at 20th Century-Fox helming Charlie Chan mysteries. If you’re as big a Guy Kibbee fan as I am, you’re in for a real treat.