Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
The Merry Wives Of Reno (1934)
Three couples raise a ruckus when they travel to Nevada for quickie divorces. Starring Guy Kibbee, Glenda Farrell, Donald Woods, Margaret Lindsay, Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh, and Ruth Donnelly. Story and Screenplay by Robert Lord. Additional dialogue by Joe Traub. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Produced and distributed by Warner Bros.
“Frank and Madge Hammond (Woods, Lindsay) are celebrating their first wedding anniversary. The couple next door, Tom and Lois Fraser (Kibbee, Donnelly), have been married a lot longer and are constantly battling about Tom’s roving eye. Madge cooks a special dinner in honor of their anniversary, but at the last minute, Frank, a salesman, calls to explain that he must attend a business dinner. His client is Bunny Fitch (Farrell), whose husband, Colonel J. Kingsley Fitch (Herbert), is out of town. Bunny is not as interested in buying a boat as she is in… Frank. While he is doing his best to fend off her advances, Tom knocks on Bunny’s door. Assuming Tom to be her husband, she chases Frank out the window without his brand new overcoat–a present from Madge. Then when the colonel unexpectedly returns, Tom follows Frank out the window, minus his overcoat. To Bunny’s dismay, the colonel has brought his pet sheep ‘Eloise’ with him. When the colonel notices the two overcoats, Bunny tries to convince him that they are his. At home, Frank tells Madge that he gave his coat to a beggar. Madge does not believe him, and when she overhears Bunny telling the story at the beauty parlor, she decides to divorce him.
“On the train to Reno, she meets Lois, who also plans to get a divorce. Traveling on the same train are Bunny, the colonel and Eloise. Frank and Tom follow on the next train; Frank at least intends to stop his divorce. In Reno, Tom pretends to be the beggar that received Frank’s coat, and Madge is about to cancel her divorce when Lois walks in and recognizes him. Madge changes her mind again when Frank begs her not to divorce him. The two couples attend a party given by Bunny and the colonel. When everyone decides to leave for a club, the colonel offers Tom and Frank their old coats. Lois, Mabel and the colonel become infuriated. Later, Tom, Frank and Bunny decide to demonstrate just how easily someone can appear guilty. They trick the women into the colonel’s room and knock on the door. Facing difficult explanations, the two women hide and Tom throws their coats out the window. After confused explanations, everyone is reconciled.” (This summary is brought to you by TCM.)
The Merry Wives Of Reno has often been written about in relation to the previous year’s Convention City, the notoriously lost film that we discussed here several years ago. They certainly share plenty in common — they were both produced by Warner Brothers, both written by Robert Lord, and both featured in their stellar ensemble casts Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh, and Hobart Cavanaugh. Oh, and they’re both largely set in hotels — one in Atlantic City, the other in Reno. But having seen this film, and read a transcript of the other, I think the comparison is unfortunate; really, they’re both conveyer-belt made Pre-Code comedies, produced by the same studio, using the same resources, all within the same calendar year, and their similarities could extend to any number of Warner Brothers films from the period. I want to belabor this point, even while acknowledging that they DO share many elements, because when viewers compare The Merry Wives Of Reno to a film like Convention City, whose legend is all that exists and therefore has a reputation that’s certainly gotten enhanced by Pre-Code lovers who want to believe in its myth (again, see our discussion to get a more accurate understanding), they’re inherently going to be disappointed. After all, how can any typically raunchy comedy compete with something that has (erroneously) been called “the raunchiest [film] there ever has been” and doesn’t have anything challenging that label?
The truth is Convention City was tamer than we’d like it to be, and the same can be said for The Merry Wives Of Reno, both when measured up against the former’s myth and the only tangible thing we have of it — its script. That is, even though Convention City is less risqué than its reputation, it’s still, on the page, a bawdier affair than Merry Wives. And because of this, it’s best we divorce ourselves from the association between the two entirely, for Merry Wives doesn’t need any more marks against it… Not that it’s a bad film, mind you — no, it’s just got a different narrative purpose: that aforementioned “d word.” You see, this is not so much a “sex romp” as it is a “divorce romp,” with Lord’s screenplay not mocking the lascivious proclivities of out-of-town men and the professional women who take advantage (like in Convention City), but the now commonplace, trivial, and ubiquitous practice of divorce — an institution that, yes, declined in popularity during the Depression, but whose societal prevalence nevertheless remained a symbol of post-war modernism and its anti-Victorian view of relationships. This film has a focus — in fact it’s even more focused than the other — and sex isn’t it. So, if you’re looking to The Merry Wives Of Reno for sex — or characters who are propelled by it, as was the case in Convention City (where they never had it; they just used it or cruised for it) — this isn’t the Pre-Code for you. But if you’re looking for a Pre-Code with commentary on its era, along with some fun double entendres and gags along the way, there’s a lot to enjoy.
For instance, while the film isn’t driven by characters who are driven by their libidos, it’s still more frank about sex than any film after the implementation of the Code — heck, its climax involves the three characters falsely implicated in an extramarital scandal arranging it so their partners are falsely implicated in one of their own. And I’m surely not going to pretend that the whole gag of Herbert’s character being a “sheep fancier,” who refuses to go anywhere without his sheep Ellie, is included in the proceedings for any other reason than to suggest unnaturally kinky (and illegal) sexual interests. To wit, this was a gag scripted for Convention City but cut well before release. And to that point, if there’s a counterargument to be made against the notion that Merry Wives‘ apparent predecessor was raunchier, let us remember that of the two, there’s only one where a randy sheep chases a bellboy down the halls of a hotel… Okay, so maybe Eloise (and her daddy) are driven by sex, and, sure, Kibbee is his usual drunken horndog, and okay, so maybe Glenda Farrell wants to philander, at least in the beginning… But really, nobody’s seriously jonesing for a hookup, just a reunion with their spouse, as the two central couples are careening to a Reno divorce because of the wives’ mistaken belief in their husbands’ infidelities. If anything, this might suggest something other than a Pre-Code sentiment, for these women aren’t retaliating by going out and finding their own boy toys or willing to look the other way for financial stability; no, they place extra value, and sentiment, on sex and are willing to go to the mat, or Reno, the divorce capital of the world, to prove it…
At least, that’s how it is with the younger couple. The older couple — Kibbee and Donnelly — treat marriage just as trivially as they treat divorce, and that speaks to the overall message of the film, for if the dissolution of marriage can be obtained so easily, does it not cheapen the idea of marriage, too? And what about sex? These characters are innocent in deed (at least), but if taking the subject matter so seriously could lead to the breakup of a marriage, should we be taking it so seriously? Perhaps we’re getting in the weeds now… At any rate, there’s some social commentary here, and a number of appreciated laughs; if the text isn’t as barb-laden as the aforementioned Convention City, there’s still some winners, particularly once the film gets to Reno. Also, if the sheep gag is cheap and tawdry… uh, isn’t that what you came to this Pre-Code to find? Hmm, perhaps it’s not so tame, and not so disappointing, after all… Recommended.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And tune in Tuesday for more Danny Thomas!