After the Silents: Lonely Wives (1931)

Welcome back to After the Silents. This series focuses on the careers of silent movie personnel in sound films and talkie stars who had forgotten careers in the silents. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of the most distinct voices in the history of cinema.

(This is my contribution to the What a Character Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to read the other posts!)

Edward Everett Horton is beloved for his numerous character parts in classic cinema, as well as his droll narration of the Fractured Fairy Tales series. After the review of Lonely Wives, we’ll be taking a look at an often overlooked chapter of his career: his work in silent films. (As an added bonus, the film we will be discussing co-stars three top silent era leading ladies: Laura La Plante, Patsy Ruth Miller and Esther Ralston. I’m excited!)

Before the history, let’s get reviewing!

Review: Lonely Wives (1931)

It’s 1931, the movies are talking and the code is toothless. What better time to make a bedroom farce about two lonely wives and one roguish husband?

Kitty and Smith scheme under the nose of ma-in-law.
Kitty and Smith scheme under the nose of ma-in-law.

Dickie Smith (Horton) is a stiff and staid fellow—until the clock strikes eight in the evening. Then he instantly transforms into a skirt-chasing party animal. This disturbs his mother-in-law, Mrs. Mantel (Maude Eburne), as she wants Smith and her daughter to commence with the breeding already. (Seriously, she wanders the house repeating “pitter-patter, pitter-patter” in a sing-song voice. I would have her committed.)

Laura La Plante has fun with her dizzy character.
Laura La Plante has fun with her dizzy character.

His wife is away in the mountains and so Smith arranges a date with both his sexy new secretary, Kitty Minter (Patsy Ruth Miller, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and with his new client, Diane O’Dare (Laura La Plante, The Cat and the Canary). Diane is film star with a vaudeville husband who never seems to come home after the last curtain call and she is sick of it. She wants a divorce and a little fun with Mr. Smith in the bargain.

Never fear, Zero's here!
Never fear, Zero’s here!

Smith tries to keep his date but Mrs. Mantel is watching him like a hawk. All seems lost when Zero (also Horton) shows up. Zero is Diane’s wayward husband and he is in the business of impressions. As Smith is something of a well-known local figure, Zero is hoping to secure permission to add him to his repertoire. Smith agrees—if Zero manages to fool Mrs. Mantel and the servants for the evening.

With Smith off on his date with Kitty and Diane, Zero makes himself at home but is soon thrown for a loop when Madeline Smith (Esther Ralston, Old Ironsides) comes home from the mountains early. She wants a big kiss from her husband and then she wants to see about that baby business.

Don't you people ever adopt?
Don’t you people ever adopt?

So Zero and Smith have swapped wives for the evening with Kitty tagging along and making tart comments. Will this ever get sorted out? Well, of course it will, this is a Hollywood picture.

First, the bad news. Lonely Wives has many of the ingredients of what would eventually become the screwball comedy. However, the film lacks the snap and pacing of a true screwball. It also lacks the winking sophistication of the Lubitsch touch and barely manages single entendre. Worst of all, the film relies on everyone running around madly and turning off their brains for the final two reels.

Chaos ensues...
Chaos ensues…

Horton does do a pretty good job of keeping his characters distinct, a particular challenge when both are dressed as Smith. The finale of the picture involves the two Smiths criss-crossing around the house and confusing the living daylights out of everyone, including themselves. I feel this strains believability as both Smith and Zero know that they have a double in the general vicinity. Wouldn’t their first assumption be that their doppelganger is still in evidence?

Are you boys fighting again?
Are you boys fighting again?

Like Cactus Flower (1969), Lonely Wives makes a fatal error in casting a funny and talented actor who is absolutely ill-equipped to play a lothario. Cactus Flower expects us to believe that Walter Matthau is the object of desire for both Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn. Lonely Wives expects us to believe that two incarnations of Edward Everett Horton are capable of driving Laura La Plante, Patsy Ruth Miller and Esther Ralston wild.

Quite the prize, amiright, ladies?
Quite the prize, amiright, ladies?

Horton sets about his usual routine of fussiness and he is so good at it that you almost forget how odd his casting is. Almost. Still, two Hortons are never a bad thing and a talented performer can do a lot with split screen. The actions of Smith and Zero may defy logic but Horton is so fun to watch (and so is Horton) that it makes up for many a sin. His hypocritical wronged husband routine is particularly funny and makes is eventual comeuppance satisfying. The special effects are pretty good, though they lack the virtuoso touches from the silent era. (Mary Pickford kissed her own cheek, Rudolph Valentino draped a fatherly arm over his own shoulder and Constance Talmage was inseparable from herself.)

I am delighted to report that the picture’s three leading ladies are also a treat. Patsy Ruth Miller has enough pre-code sass for three films. Laura La Plante is a doll as the ditz of the outfit and she does a killer drunk routine in the bargain. Esther Ralston has the last laugh as the innocent (or is she?) Mrs. Madeline Smith.

A long way from Esmeralda.
A long way from Esmeralda.

Alas, Maude Eburne plays her character like she’s afraid we can’t see her in the back. Mrs. Mantel is one of those dreadful characters known to inhabit romantic comedies of this sort. Basically, they show inordinate interest in the consummation of marriages and the making of babies. It reaches the point where you really wish they would seek professional help. Things are made even worse in Lonely Wives by the fact that Horton is closer in age to Eburne (she is eleven years older) than Ralston (she is sixteen years younger). Mrs. Mantel’s antic include playing baby-related novelty songs 24/7, locking her daughter and son-in-law in their bedrooms at night (!) and demanding to hear ALL the details of daughter’s love life. She is, frankly, terrifying.

Get therapy, lady.
Get therapy, lady.

Lonely Wives has deep flaws in its script and Horton is miscast but his considerable charm and the novelty of seeing him x2 is quite enjoyable. The cute performances from Ralston, La Plante and Miller are the icing on the cake and it’s a wonderful chance to see these talented women work their magic in the talkies.

Availability: Lonely Wives is in the public domain and is available in numerous editions, though I wager none are particularly pristine.

Edward Everett Horton

edward-everett-horton

Few classic film actors have as many young fans as Edward Everett Horton. His witty narration of the Fractured Fairy Tales segment in Rocky & Bullwinkle made him one of my favorite classic character actors. I’m not sure if I saw him in Arsenic and Old Lace before or after but it was around the same time. His amusing turn in Holiday sealed the deal: I was a six-year-old fan of Mr. Horton.

fractured-fairy-talesI’ve never liked loud noises or loud people (shocking, I know, for a silent film blogger) and Horton’s quiet ways even when upset or stressed appealed to me. I think he has a bit of a Mr. Rogers vibe about him; he just comes off as such a nice, gentle man that it’s easy to love his characters, nervous tics and all.

Horton’s signature fluttering, nervous mannerisms are a delight but what really sells his work is his wonderful voice. He sounds like a kindly (if neurotic) schoolteacher and no one in movies has sounded like him before or since. And so it may come as a surprise that Horton had a successful career in silent films.

Alas, many of Horton’s silent starring features are missing and presumed lost, including Ruggles of Red Gap (1923), his breakout film made while he was still just Edward Horton. (It was later remade with Charles Laughton in the lead.)

And what a cast!
And what a cast!

Edward Everett Horton in a film based on a novel by my beloved Harry Leon Wilson? Yes, please! (On that note, please check your attics, basements, former Soviet archives, etc.)

Excitable fellow.
Excitable fellow.

Horton’s surviving silent films are mostly found in archives, some intact and a few incomplete, but at least we have film festivals that screen such rarities, right? And all is not lost as you can see him in a supporting role in La Boheme (1926), which is available on DVD.

Much of Horton’s career from his screen debut in 1922 to the talkie revolution is unavailable to the general public. I wish I could share more information with you but to make up for this shortage, vintage ads and clippings give us a tantalizing glimpse of this fascinating period:

An incomplete copy of this 1925 film survives.
An incomplete copy of this 1925 film survives.
A theater lobby decorated for the occasion.
A theater lobby decorated for the occasion.
Taxi! Taxi! (1927) is one of Horton's most-wanted lost pictures.
Taxi! Taxi! (1927) is one of Horton’s most-wanted lost pictures.

Of course, fans of Horton can easily enjoy performances from his long sound career but it’s fun to go a little further back in time and examine the beginnings of one of the great character actors of classic films.

20 Replies to “After the Silents: Lonely Wives (1931)”

  1. It would be interesting to learn if Patsy Ruth Miller mentioned
    Lonely Wives or Edward Everett Horton in her well-received book My Hollywood: When Both of Us Were Young? I obviously haven’t read it! (I should have) Do you know?

    1. I’m afraid there isn’t much. She just wrote that she made three pictures with Horton and while she liked him, she didn’t like being a foil. Personally, I thought she was plenty funny as the sassy Kitty in this one.

  2. It may be bizarre, but any Edward Everett Horton is a million times better than none – I may need to chase this up (huge fan here…. hey, I watched F Troop almost entirely for his Roaring Chicken!)

    Thank you!

  3. I would enjoy watching EE Horton in Ruggles of Red Gap. Love him so much. I chose to write a post on him for a years past of WAC, myself. But I love your insights on his earlier career! Thanks again for joining our blogathon!

  4. I have never seen Laura LaPlane in anything besides The Cat and the Canary, so seeing her in a talkie would be delightful. It was so cool that you showcased Edward – he is, indeed, quite popular in the film community and I’m myself a huge fan.
    Kisses!

  5. I’ve never seen LONELY WIVES, but I’ll have to check it out. Agree about CACTUS FLOWER…Hawn and Bergman are great but Matthau’s casting strains credibility.

  6. Ahah despite the “bad news”, I have to say your excellent review really grabbed my attention on the film Lonely Wives. I think they made some of the best comedies in the 30s, so I’ll certainly be curious to take a look at it! I also enjoyed your little bio of Horton, reminding me that he’s an actor I should pay more attention to. I’ve seen some of his films like Arsenic and Old Lace and Holiday (the 1938 one), but not many. Great and fun post! Don’t forget to check my entry as well 🙂

  7. EEH is a favorite of mine so learning about the new-to-me Lonely Wives and some of his silent ventures is a special treat. This made me spit up my oatmeal, by the way: “Lonely Wives expects us to believe that two incarnations of Edward Everett Horton are capable of driving Laura La Plante, Patsy Ruth Miller and Esther Ralston wild.”

    Enjoyable and informative. Thanks for always entertaining and for this entry to What a Character!

    Aurora

  8. I saw this film, and I wouldn’t have given it nearly the praise that you did – but it was still worth watching because of Horton. I saw him first in several Astaire/Rogers films, and I’ve loved him in anything I’ve seen him in. I had no idea he did silents, too. Thanks for the post!

Comments are closed.