“You be careful, madam, or you’ll turn my pretty head with your flattery.” ~ George Carey
“I often wished I could turn your head- on a spit, over a slow fire.” ~ Kay Wilson
“You know, a thing like a divorce can break up a marriage!” ~ George Carey
“Ever since you got off that boat, you’ve been chasing me like an amorous goat.” ~ Kay Wilson
In 1940, director W.S. Van Dyke brought together his leading actors for The Thin Man series in a screwball comedy called I Love You Again. William Powell and Myrna Loy, who worked together through the six films of that comedic husband and wife detective series as Nick and Nora Charles, did work together on other films, and this delightful romp is one of them.
We meet Larry Wilson (Powell) on a cruise. He’s a stodgy, frugal businessman on his way home, not much fun at all. While saving a drunk, “Doc” Ryan (Frank McHugh), who’s fallen into the water, Larry gets hit in the head by an oar. When he wakes up in the morning in the company of Doc, he’s talking in a way completely different to when we first met him, saying his name is George Carey. He remembers he’s a con man who was on his way to place a bet in 1931- and that was it. Everything that came after that, including his second identity, is a blank.
Doc is something of a grifter himself, and accompanies George when he disembarks in New York. They’re met by Larry’s wife Kay (Loy), who’s trying to get out of the marriage entirely so that she can marry her new beau Herbert (Donald Douglas). George, looking at the wife he can’t remember with fresh eyes, is a bit thunderstruck. He also sees some possible opportunities for a con, what with a sizeable checking account in his name in their hometown in Pennslyvania. Things get complicated, and hilarious from there, while George tries to keep the whole amnesia thing from his wife and figure out how to pull off a score by making use of his second identity’s highly respected reputation.
The story is based on a 1937 novel of the same name by Octavius Roy Cohen; several writers got involved at one point or another in adapting the story into a screenplay. Van Dyke, who had a gift for comedy through his career, was a wise choice as a director. He keeps the story moving along briskly, with sight gags, snappy dialogue and banter, and a tone throughout that’s smart. Most of the film was obviously done on sets, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The subject matter doesn’t require anything but that, after all. The story uses some of the nuances of the era- the hardened con without any ethics (Edmund Lowe) could have fit quite nicely into any of the Thin Man films. Herbert, the apparent replacement fiancé who’s really something of a sad sack, reminds me of a similar character in The Philadelphia Story.
It’s the cast that really makes the film shine throughout. Edmund Lowe plays Duke Sheldon, the film’s general heavy. He’s a con artist George knew back in the day, and unlike George or Doc, he seems to have no scruples at all, no sense of basic ethics. He talks like you’d expect a crook of the era (at least a movie crook) to talk. Donald Douglas gets the thankless role of Herbert (imagine going through life as a Herbert). He presents himself as an upstanding man, but is automatically hampered by the fact that the audience comes into this already liking George more, and so nobody really roots for him to end the movie a happily married man. Frank McHugh is fun as Doc Ryan- and a reminder of the old quote about never playing cards with a guy named Doc. The character is a grifter and scoundrel, and yet has some ethics. He spends the better part of the movie passing himself off as a physician, proving to be a loyal buddy to George, and he’s a funny character to watch.
It’s the sparks and banter between the leading actors that really makes the film though. At this point, the two had made three Thin Man films together, and had appeared opposite each other in other projects. Loy’s Kay starts out acerbic and hostile towards the man she’s known as Larry. She’s had enough of the stuffed shirt boring but respectable fellow and wants out of the marriage. Loy handles the sparks and acidic wit particularly well as her character spars with George. Her confusion over how he’s behaving since his return comes across well, as George is busy hiding the whole amnesia thing and his true nature (one wonders why “Larry” never mentioned not having any memories of his own life before 1931). She has great comic timing and plays the character smart- even with the confusion her husband is putting her through, Kay’s got a good sense that things are not quite as they seem.
Powell also brings wonderful comedic timing to his performance. He starts out playing the sort of respectable and affable but dreadfully boring guy we’d go out of our way to avoid, an overly frugal man who deems his reputation above reproach. When he wakes up as the man he once was, his personality’s completely switched, to something of a charming wiseguy laughing at the world and looking for an opportunity. His George does have some scruples, and the actor doesn’t mind making a fool of himself for comic effect as the film goes along. The actor goes through the film as George- while trying to still pose as his alter ego and pretend to most concerned that there’s nothing at all amiss- and this gives him a lot to play with, and amuses the audience to no end.
I Love You Again is a different take on the chemistry between the actors than we’d seen in The Thin Man series. Unlike that series, where we meet their characters as a married couple who genuinely love and like each other (it doesn’t always happen), they start out their interaction this time out as a married couple seemingly at the end of their line- before amnesia throws an amusing monkey into the wrench and takes them in a new direction. The writing and acting are clever and funny, the characters have great sparks, and the film, underappreciated as it might be, rates as a classic.