Friday, October 20, 2017

The Bigamist

The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon is an event celebrating the actress on the occasion of her 100th birthday, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and The Wonderful World of Cinema. For a complete listing of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

The Bigamist

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Finally, I watched an Ida Lupino-directed movie, only I was slightly disappointed. The Bigamist was good, better than I had expected, but I kind of hoped to find something in it, some visual flair in the cinematography or editing or acting that would mark it as "an Ida Lupino film." I didn't see one; it looked like most Hollywood movies of the early 50s tended to look. If Lupino had a directorial style, perhaps it will take more than one film of hers to spot.

I used to think this movie was exploitative in some way; like, because it was such an unusual subject matter for the time, it would be lurid or cheap somehow? Obviously, this was long before I knew about Lupino. In fact, the movie bends over backwards to make Edmond O'Brien sympathetic, despite the crime his character commits. (Anyone else think he kinda looked like Raymond Burr?)

It was a choice he made, no doubt, but the screenplay works hard at painting him into a corner: traveling salesman; oblivious (though not cold) wife unable to have kids; other woman who he knocks up. It'd be easier if he was a cad, like say, Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, but O'Brien wants to do right by Lupino as much as by Joan Fontaine. Given the morals of the time, he must have known how a single woman who had a baby out of wedlock would be regarded. He didn't want Lupino to suffer that fate. That's honorable, in a twisted way.

Fontaine "compensates" for her infertility by supporting O'Brien in his business. At first she doesn't want to adopt. There's a good scene where the two of them are entertaining clients at home. She schmoozes and makes with the sales pitch while O'Brien is quieter, more withdrawn, like he knows she cares more about business than their marriage. It's a great scene for a woman character, yet the implication is she would not be this way if she was a mother. Fontaine confirms as much later on, when she changes her mind about adopting, saying how she realized "something was missing" in her life. Just like Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade, the couple's self-worth is predicated on their ability to start a family.

Since this blogathon is devoted to her, a few quick words about Fontaine. If I had to choose between her and Olivia De Havilland, I think I'd go with Livvie. Joan always struck me as being a little too soft. Yes, I saw her in Born to Be Bad, where she goes way against type; maybe if she had made more movies like that, I wouldn't think of her as mousy. Plus, the shape of her mouth is off-putting to me. She had that odd curl to her upper lip I always notice whenever I see her in something and once I see it, I can't un-see it. Livvie doesn't have it. Still, Fontaine was okay. Don't have anything against her, really.

Edmund Gwenn plays the adoption agent who uncovers O'Brien's dirty little secret. In the beginning, he and Fontaine joke that Gwenn looks like Santa Claus. If Lupino had stuck with this one harmless wink to the audience, that would've been fine. Later on, however, there's a scene on a Hollywood bus tour; it's where O'Brien meets Lupino. The driver says things like, "There's Barbara Stanwyck's home," and "There's Jack Benny's home," and then he says, "And there's Edmund Gwenn's home!"

That threw me out of the movie completely. Such a blatant metatextual flourish, coupled with the earlier in-joke, seemed completely at odds with the rest of the movie. I couldn't understand why Lupino would do that. Were she and Gwenn pals? Maybe that was her directorial flair.

Movies with Joan Fontaine:


  1. That was a nice contrasted article! Tbh, I didn't like this film that much the first time I saw it, but I like it MUCH more the second time. I think the fact that it was on big screen probably help. ;) I can't say that it's a GREAT film, but it certainly is an interesting one. Thanks for your participation to the blogathon!

  2. By the way, if you want to see Joan as a villain, I'll also recommend Ivy. She's even more evil in this one than she is in Born to Be Bad!

  3. I think for what it is, it's fine. I would imagine if this had been even attempted twenty years earlier, it'd probably be dressed up as a light comedy. Lupino treats the subject seriously and tries to capture both sides, male and female. That's worth something.

    I'll add IVY to the list.

  4. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Lupino's films is the fact that they exist at all in the times she was working. I think she has a nice touch with actors and a definite bent toward stories that the mainstream would ignore. Next to The Hitch-Hiker, I think Never Fear, which looks at a dancer recovering from illness, really touched me.

    I used to relate Joan Fontaine to the simps I found her characters in Rebecca and Suspicion, but the more I saw of her, in Ivy and The Emperor Waltz, and Letter from an Unknown Woman, the more I appreciated her talent and skill. I think Olivia played in more high profile pictures, and more likeable characters which add to her stardom.

    In her autobiography Myrna Loy spoke of Joan and her great sense of humour. A trait like that makes me look at a person a little more differently than I might ordinarily.

  5. I freely admit I haven't seen Fontaine in many movies. I think you're right that Livvie's movies were bigger; maybe that's why I'm biased towards her.

  6. I liked the film, and I think Ida had more a way of working with actors than a "touch". And, yes, O'Brien reminded me of Raymond Burr!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

  7. You're probably right. I'll try to watch more of Lupino's films sometime soon.


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