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Monday, March 17, 2014

DVD Review: The Bigamist

The Bigamist is a 1953 drama with an excellent cast: Joan Fontaine as Eve Graham, Ida Lupino as Phyllis Martin, and Edmond O’Brien as Harry Graham, the man married to both of them. Ida Lupino also directed this film, early in her directing career before switching to television. The cast is rounded out by Edmund Gwenn, forever famous as Kris Kringle in Miracle On 34th Street, here playing Mr. Jordan, a scrupulous man who works for an adoption agency, conducting background checks.

The film opens with Harry and Eve Graham in the process of adopting a child. Mr. Jordan hands them each one last form, giving the agency permission to “check into every detail” of their private lives. Eve signs away happily, but Harry hesitates. (I would hesitate too.) After they leave, Mr. Jordan records their information, a way of giving the audience the couple’s back story, including the fact that Harry is a traveling salesman who started a company four years ago aided by his wife, and that they’ve been married for eight years.

Meanwhile, a woman is cleaning the office, adding humor to the scene. Mr. Jordan indicates something bothers him about Harry, leading the woman to say, “If all the others was like you, there wouldn’t be any babies given away in this state at all.” She asks him why he’s like that, and he says, “If you had made a mistake once, you wouldn’t ever let it happen again.” And you can feel the regret, even sorrow in his voice, as well as see it on his face. This establishes that he is a man determined to do everything he can to guarantee safe homes for the children.

We then see Harry and Eve at home. Eve, confident that they’ll get a child, says, “Mr. Jordan looks like Santa Claus, just like a man who gives babies away,” an interesting reference to Edmund Gwenn’s most famous role in Miracle On 34th Street. The film makes an even more direct reference to that movie and role later. When Harry is in Los Angeles, he gets on one of the buses that tour Beverly Hills, pointing out the homes of the stars. The guide points out the homes of Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny and Edmond Gwenn, saying of the last, “Santa Claus to the whole world” in Miracle On 34th Street. Harry then turns to the woman next to him and comments that that was a wonderful picture. It’s so interesting that in the world of The Bigamist, Edmund Gwenn exists both as a real actor and as a fictional character, and that other characters somewhat see the resemblance.

Harry travels to Los Angeles for business, and Mr. Jordan follows him there to continue his investigation, saying he was going to L.A. for a meeting anyway. He tracks him down to a house, and is about to leave when he hears a baby crying from the other room. It’s a really nice moment, because Harry goes to take care of the child, lovingly, not trying to hide it or lie or anything. That comes as a pleasant surprise.

The taxi waiting for Mr. Jordan honks, leading Harry to say: “Pay him off, tell him to go. You’ll wake them both up. My wife’s sick too. She’s in the other room, asleep. She’s been up with the baby two nights in a row.” And without a word, Mr. Jordan goes outside. This, to me, is when the film starts to get really good. While Mr. Jordan sends the taxi away, Harry lovingly checks on his wife (whom we still haven’t seen, and so for now she is only as we imagine her to be).

After Mr. Jordan returns and asks about Harry’s double life, the story is then told mainly in flashbacks, showing how Harry met the other woman, Phyllis. Ida Lupino is excellent as Phyllis, playing the character with both wit and vulnerability. When Harry comes on to her, she accepts his offer for dinner and then takes him to the Chinese restaurant where she actually works.

Harry calls Eve, and tells her about Phyllis, but Eve doesn’t take him seriously. This is one of the film’s best and most touching scenes, as he clearly wants to connect with his wife, unburden himself to her, but is unable to.

I like that Harry is not portrayed as a jerk or a selfish, evil man. It becomes completely understandable (almost inevitable) how he got caught in this set of circumstances. That’s due partly to the writing and directing, but I think in large part because of Edmond O’Brien’s performance.

This DVD has been restored from the original 35 mm film elements. However, the picture bounces around a bit during the opening credits. And there are scratches on the print, as well as a few missing frames here and there. But that sort of adds to the charm of watching these older films. The DVD contains no special features.

The Bigamist is scheduled to be released on March 25, 2014 through Film Chest.

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