Irving Reis‘ Three Husbands (1950) was the comedic answer to Joseph L. Mankiewicz ‘s hugely popular and critically acclaimed drama A Letter to Three Wives released the year before. As it turns out, aside from a general story connection, Three Husbands shared only writer Vera Caspary with Mankiewicz’s movie. Caspary adapted A Letter to Three Wives and wrote the story and screenplay for Three Husbands, but the latter didn’t garner the same type of attention or positive reviews. Brought to fruition by Gloria Productions, Inc. and distributed by United Artists, Reis’ picture is small and largely unknown, but it has one major thing going for it – Eve Arden.
As Three Husbands opens we are treated to a heavenly sequence during which we hear the voices of recently deceased souls being granted a last wish. The scene reminds me of the one in It’s a Wonderful Life when Clarence is assigned to George Bailey. Anyway, the soul of rich bachelor Max Bard – played by writer/actor Emlyn Williams – is one of those and his wish is to be allowed one day to watch his three best friends react to a letter he left them, a letter in which he tells each husband that he had an affair with each of their wives. You can just imagine how well that goes over.
The husbands and wives that become the subject of Max’s plan are Mr. and Mrs. Evans played by Shepperd Strudwick and Ruth Warrick, Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker played by Robert Karnes and Vanessa Brown, and Mr. and Mrs. McCabe played by Howard Da Silva and Eve Arden. At first all three husbands think Max’s letter is a practical joke from their friend the playboy, but as they begin to reminisce about all the times the wives spent with Max, which we are treated to by way of flashbacks, jealousy starts to rear its ugly head. And rightfully so, I might add. Anyone watching the flashbacks of the time spent between playboy Max and the three women is sure to suspect something was going on. With one wife Max goes to the symphony; he hires another as a nurse; with the last he goes to nightclubs and teaches French.
Of the three wives Max spent an exorbitant amount of time with, it’s Lucille McCabe (Arden) that we are most interested in because it’s that voice, the sardonic delivery and familiar, definitive physicality that make the movie. Howard Da Silva as Lucille’s husband Dan is also quite good, he’s a great complement to Arden. These are two seasoned actors doing what they do best. That’s why Dan and Lucille McCabe are the most enjoyable of the three couples to watch. The rest of the cast is rather bland, but the McCabes are full of energy. They’re a rough-around-the-edges pair played by experts in that kind of characterization. In fact, it’s thanks to Arden and Da Silva that Three Husbands is funny at all. Not only can Dan and Lucille fight like nobody’s business, but they’re hard-talking gamblers trying to be more refined, which of course poses its own inherent fun. This is why Max was teaching Lucille McCabe French and why he was taking her to nightclubs – so she could become a classy, high society woman. It’s the scenes when Dan and Lucille are alone slipping in and out of society and back into working class lingo, however, that are the most fun. Dan talk like a bookie and Lucille’s a glamour girl who likes chocolate and beer and mashed potatahs and who, while talking about being classy, flicks her cigarette ashes on Dan’s shoes.
The McCabes have money and live in a swanky apartment, but when they start sparring…well, you know what they say, “you can take the girl outta da Bronx, etc. but…” For instance, when Lucille is done eating chocolates from a fancy box she tosses it over the railing of the swanky pad – in that sarcastic Eve Arden sort of way. It’s a slip of her not-too-carefully contrived upper crust veneer as is the moment we see and hear her yelling her lungs out at the racetrack surround by hoity toity types who have not a hair out of place.
Even the set up for the Max-Lucille flashbacks are more enjoyable than any of the others in Three Husbands. Dan shows Lucille Max’s letter and when he laughs about it thinking there’s no way Max would ever be interested in Lucille in “that way,” they get into a fight about which of the two was responsible for Max’s friendship in the first place. Only the one with class would have attracted the rich playboy. It’s as Dan recollects how Max became their friend that he comes to realize Lucille is a lot more fun and a hell of a lot classier than he is. The stage is set for another crumbling marriage.
At the end of Three Husbands, which spans 24 hours as that’s what Max’s wish entailed, the three couples are ready to divorce due to the obvious infidelity issues the husbands had previously ignored. I won’t tell you how the story ends, but suffice it to know that Frank Cady appears in a cameo as an elevator attendant and adds joy to the proceedings, which includes a renewed appreciation of Max the cad. And by the way, Three Husbands also features classic favorites Billie Burke and Jane Darwell. Honestly, you can’t go wrong here. This is a swift, enjoyable 118 minutes.
I was just introduced to Three Husbands last week and decided to recommend it as my entry to The Eve Arden Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. This is especially true if you’re a fan of Eve Arden – and who isn’t? By 1950 Ms. Arden’s movie career began to wane following her Oscar-nominated turn in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, which makes you want to eat your young. Arden later had a resurgence in popularity with her signature role as school teacher Miss Brooks on radio, TV and in a 1956 feature film. Three Wives lays silent between those major eras in Arden’s career, but it spotlights all of the qualities that make her a beloved classic.
Eve Arden (April 30, 1908 – November 12, 1990)