Happy (VERY) Belated Valentine’s Day, dear readers! This year for Hallmark’s most important holiday, I wanted to watch something a bit off the beaten rom-com path without delving into territory too arcane. When I asked myself what elements I felt were important for an enjoyable romantic comedy experience, I came up with a pithy list of adjectives that included “sexy” and “sophisticated.” Who better personifies such a combination than that comedic dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy? Answer: NO ONE.
So, I queued up W.S. Van Dyke’s 1940 love letter, I Love You Again, in which Powell plays a stuffy, by-the-book teetotaler named Larry Wilson. Loy is along for the ride as his suffering wife. When Larry is knocked unconscious after a decidedly screwball accident (during a pleasure cruise, one too many grape juice and gingerales has him jumping overboard to save a drunken man), he awakens with amnesia and the revelation that 10 years prior, he used to be a con man named George Carey. Apparently the only thing that Wilson and Carey have in common is their attraction to Kay Hijinks ensue.
The wonderful thing about I Love You Again is that Carey treats Wilson as if he were a total stranger. Continually referencing him in the third person, there is not one iota of George that identifies with Larry, and at times he is down right hostile in his estimation of this interloper who robbed him of a decade. Therefore, when he learns that Wilson is a man of means, Carey immediately sets out, with the help of side-kick ‘Doc’ Ryan (Frank McHugh), to drain Wilson’s assets and get the heck out of dodge.
The fly in the ointment, however, is that the minute Carey lays eyes on Kay, Wilson’s (his!) wife, he falls in love. Much to Doc’s dismay, George allows his “professional” judgment to lapse time and again in favor of wooing a woman who clearly would rather eat glass than spend one more minute married to the bore she believes George to be.
When the story opens, Kay is already in the process of divorcing her husband. She has a new suitor, Herbert (Donald Douglas), an indignant, slap-happy fellow keen on ridding her life of all Wilson-esque traces. The very same afternoon that Carey disembarks from his cruise, Kay coolly informs him that she’s leaving him. A fist fight with Herbert ensues, followed by a scramble on George’s part to keep Kay in his life.
Over a conciliatory dinner with Kay and Herbert, George discovers the perfect premise for salvaging his marriage. Unbeknownst to him, Larry Wilson is up for the presidency of his hometown’s chamber of commerce. After questioning his uncharacteristically personable attitude, Kay surmises that it is merely an act to keep the scandal of divorce away from his campaign. She agrees to stay with him until after the election, which thrills George to no end, and gives rise to a very long, steamy, kiss goodnight. The kiss itself lasts an astounding 15 seconds, which surely must have made the hair on the back of the censors’ necks stand at full attention!
Upon extracting this promise, George promptly heads for the prim and proper town of Habersville, PA, with Doc Ryan and his bride in tow. Excited by the possibility of spending more time with Kay, and of course by emptying Larry’s coffers, he exclaims upon descending the train: “The very air [here] smells different!” To which Kay cracks, “That’s the glue factory,” in perfect demonstration of the kind of Powell/Loy repartee we know and love.
In Habersville, George becomes increasingly side-tracked from essentially robbing himself, as he must contend with convincing the townsfolk that he is, indeed, the Larry Wilson of old. Reliable, dependable, stingy Larry. . .owner of a pottery plant, leader of the local Boy Ranger troop, bang-up trumpet player, a staunch, upstanding citizen all around. Add to this mix the domestic element of an interfering mother-in-law, and the stage is set for all sorts of situational comedy.
Powell is more than up for the game, as he stumbles his way around, trying to learn the ropes of his pre-amnesia life. Most of the laughs are derived from his fish out of water experience, and there is a surprising amount of physical comedy involved that those only aware of Powell’s Nick Charles routine might find surprising. Case in point, when George is forced to take his troop (headed by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, of “Our Gang” fame) out hiking, he runs himself ragged in an attempt to prove that he is every bit the naturalist that Larry Wilson was.
In contrast to these amusing dust-ups, George and Doc are shocked to discover that most of Larry’s assets are not liquid. So, they dream up a little scheme that involves planting oil on a parcel of useless land owned by Wilson. The somewhat odd idea behind this is to spark a bidding war between the town’s richest citizens. For this, they enlist the aid of one of George’s old cronies, Duke Sheldon (Edmund Lowe). Sheldon is a real hardboiled criminal, the type who would rather slit your throat than let you double cross him, so naturally Doc is skittish whenever he sees George’s attention waiver.
And boy how they waiver. When he’s not busy getting to know Larry Wilson, George is spending every spare moment getting to know Kay. At first annoyed by George’s attentions, she gradually finds herself intrigued by his change in demeanor, and by the last third of the film, is herself, head over heels in love.
“Ever since you got off that boat you’ve been chasing me like an amorous goat. You’ve tried your darnedest to make me fall in love with you and now you have. So from now on I’m going to do the chasing, and believe me, brother, you’re going to know you’ve been chased. “
Just how much does she love her new and improved husband? Well, during the denouement, it is revealed that George’s initial lapse into Larry Wilson mode occurred during a fight with Duke Sheldon ten years ago. As the fake land deal, always predestined to fail, comes crashing down around him, the two once again get into a scrap which leaves George unconscious and Kay fearing the worst. When confronted with whether she can live with and continue loving George, even if he reverts back into Larry, Kay becomes silently hysterical. It is a wonderful piece of acting from Loy, who for the most part, is relegated to playing the straight man here. One can visibly see her choke up, as if she were swallowing a great storm, before dissolving into quiet sobs, and subsequently settling into something harder, more resolute. For such a scene, it is easy to imagine a lesser actress choosing to go whole hog, with hair-tearing and tears flowing, but because (thankfully) it’s Loy, the audience is treated to something much more subtle, and therefore, moving.
Resolved to salvage her marriage in the only way she knows how, Kay picks up a large porcelain vase and aims with icy precision at “Larry’s” head. Only at the last second, before the blow is about fall, does George reveal that he’s still the same man she fell in love with him. He was only playing a part to get Sheldon out of their lives. Cue relieved laughter, a romantic embrace, and the music swells as the credits roll!
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who helmed four of the six Thin Man films, it comes as no surprise that the main attraction here is the chemistry between Powell and Loy. Van Dyke knows how to pull back and let his stars flex their muscles, and with two performers who know each others’ styles so intimately, this is the wisest choice a director could have made. Indeed, small homage is even paid to the trios’ Thin Man collaboration. In a scene where George wheedles Kay into cooking him a midnight snack, of all the dishes he could have requested, he chooses scrambled eggs. This is parallel to 1936’s After The Thin Man, in which Nora begs a sleepy Nick to fix her the very same thing. Of course, here, George ends up wearing the eggs all over his pajamas, whereas the Charles’ noshing remains a tad more dignified.
While Myrna Loy certainly has less to do in I Love You Again than she does when playing Nick Charles’ better half, her role is still essential in that it both drives the plot and provides a springboard for much of the humor. As previously mentioned, she is unarguably the straight man of the film. While most jokes do not originate with her character, her repartee provides the essential complement to George’s humorous entreaties.
There is mild social commentary amidst what is ultimately a light, breezy romp. Through George/Larry’s amnesia, the idea of identity is once again revisited. It is telling that the George of 10 years again was a hardened criminal, intent on survival at all costs, even at the expense of others. As times began to change, and America’s financial situation relaxes somewhat, he morphs into the more complacent character of Larry. Still, Larry is an example of a wiser, more prudent product born from a country that has learned from its mistakes. He takes nothing by chance. By the time George redux makes his appearance in the “present day,” America is close to entering the war. Is this George really the George of old? Seemingly, no.
We know who Larry is, having briefly met him at the beginning of the picture. Moreover, all of Habersville, including Kay, can reveal through their perspicacious exposition the sort of man Mr. Wilson is/was. And we know, albeit secondhand, who George used to be. But the character in whom we are invested is a whole new entity. We discover him in tandem with Kay, and the interesting point here is that while George is the main character, our point of reference on how we view him is aligned with that of the supposedly lesser character of Loy’s.
This new George is a hybrid being, and discovering him is like discovering a new land. Certainly, one can discern in him traits that would be essential to a con artist. He is charming, resourceful, and silver-tongued. However, this man lacks the ruthlessness necessary to win at all costs. Of course, it would be hard for an audience to identify with, and root for, a cold-hearted hero, so for all practical narrative purposes, he cannot return to where he has already been. But on more metaphorical level, George’s transformation is akin to that of a newly emerging America: thawing, bumbling, but earnest.
On the lowest level, what makes I Love You Again tick in such a timely fashion is the malted blend of comedy contained herein. This one’s got everything. Witty dialogue, slapstick scenarios, drawing room comedy, everything. Yet far from resembling some gelatinous mess, here, the mixture actually works.
So is this film brain surgery? No. But it is undoubtedly fun. And that’s something audiences now, as ever, can use a little more of!
Slightly unrelated note: The menu of the I Love You Again DVD features a picture of Powell and Loy in which Loy looks so like Rosalind Russell that it’s quite disorienting! Before discovering what a fine comedienne Russell was in her own right, MGM used her as a second string replacement threat to Loy. The two only starred together in one film, 1938’s Man-Proof (which ain’t no great shakes, take it from Miss Fierce), but were friendly off set. An excerpt from Russell’s Life is a Banquet:
Myrna used to live up a hill from me, and once at a dinner party I was teasing her about my having got all her rejects. “Those scripts,” I said. “You’d wait until dark, shove ‘em out of your house, and they’d roll down the hill and hit my front door, and that’s the way they were cast.”
Everybody at the table laughed, and then Myrna’s voice, reflecting on of the dogs she’d got stuck with, cut through the hilarity. “Well, you must have been out,” she said, “the night I rolled you Parnell!”