In Name Only (1939): Carole & Cary

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If you know very little about In Name Only and only see the two acting forces who lead the charge: Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, you would come to expect a comedy on almost any given occasion. Oddly enough, this movie is very much a melodrama, though our two stars have fine chemistry and meet in what very well could have been the beginnings of a fine screwball romance under different circumstances.

Julie Eden (Lombard) is doing her best to fly fish, but the overhanging trees are trying even harder to impede her progress. The typical scowling Lombard stanky eye is hard at work, while another familiar face wonders into view from on horseback — only to have her line snag on the tree right near him. He eyes it wryly.

A moment later Alec Walker (Grant) introduces himself as she sheepishly continues — this was all perfectly normal and she meant to do everything — only for him to tell her there hasn’t been any fish in the pond for 20 years. They are one pratfall away from screwball comic proportions, and yet they chart an alternative course.

She has a young daughter. Her husband has died and so she gets by on her own. And Alec, while it’s easy enough to surmise he’s yet another happy-go-lucky Cary Grant playboy, not so fast with your judgments.

He wanders back to a family estate, uncomfortable in the rooms, dodging the needling questions of his concerned father (Charles Coburn), and avoiding the gaze of his perfectly upstanding wife (Kay Francis)…That’s it, isn’t it? He’s already married and these first impressions suggest, unhappily so.

Ironically, divorce proves a crucial element of the plot on this occasion like its counterparts within the subset of “Comedy of Remarriage,” most of which came into being solely because of the rigid structure of the Production Codes. The fact divorce is uttered at all — beyond simply a euphemistic trip to Reno — is, in itself, slightly novel.

If one is to find fault with In Name Only, in retrospect, the plot feels akin to putting such talented actors as Grant and Irene Dunne in a drama like Penny Serenade when you already had them together in such an uproarious movie like The Awful Truth.

In other words, despite the quality of the movie,  it’s a minor letdown because, in this case, we don’t even have another hilarious pairing of the two heavyweights to fall back on (although they were paired in two earlier dramas).

Regardless, we must take it for what it is and enjoy what does work. To dispel any fears, In Name Only isn’t primarily a sudser — at least not in the beginning. In fact, with a pair such as Grant and Lombard as they drum up their romantic rapport together, they can’t help but be sweet, sprinkling in their normally humorous proclivities.

It comes naturally when dealing with the situations around them. Namely, for Grant, it involves the gossips and snooty company he’s forced to parley with — folks he has no tolerance for. On one occasion over Thanksgiving, he very blatantly requests the waiter to bring a very sharp knife with his steak. All the better to poke or, better yet, cut the throat of the insufferable Suzanne (Helen Vinson).

For that matter, it’s a positive delight to see Kay Francis make a prominent return to the screen. Her box office pull had waned significantly since the first half of the decade. Still, despite the change in genre, she comes to play. Francis proves wonderfully manipulative — positively lowdown and conniving — those iconic features of hers intent on any cold mode of deception to get their way.

As Alec’s wife, she’s constantly nettling him in subtle ways — playing mental games to make his life miserable — as he’s made to look the cad. However, she hides her perfidiousness between a perfectly manicured matrimonial mask. The in-laws remain constantly on her side as she easily casts herself as the victim and makes her husband the unsung villain. But for the movie to work, we must be in his corner, despite all else. Who are we kidding? He’s Cary Grant. Despising him is a tall order (Notorious wasn’t released yet).

Mere friendship cannot be maintained under such conditions. Not only does society frown upon it, Julie cannot bear to exist in such a manner. Instead, she desires to never see him again, in an effort to not make life any harder and the feelings more complicated than they already are.

Because left untethered, humans can always play the wishful what-if games until you must actually deal with cold, hard reality. In this story, Grant is married and there’s no dismissing the facts.

Remember these were the days when the institution of marriage was taken very seriously (which is not necessarily a bad thing), but it does become an issue when people get into it who never seemed to love one another in the first place — it’s a bit like living a lie. The solution seems easy enough. They aren’t happy together. Surely an amicable split is in order. Cary asks. Kay condones it. Easy as pie…

And thus, the film lulls into an interim period that all comes too easily — no kicking and screaming spouse, no broken furniture or anything like that. After all, Maida’s M.O. is far more cunning. She has an altogether more insidious plan laid out for her husband, who is thanking his lucky stars he’s had such an easy time of it. He could not be more mistaken.

As alluded to, Maida is prepared for the long haul. She drags the proceedings out, tying them up with “red tape,” and handcuffing Alec and Judie in a constant state of prolonged limbo, month after month. It’s no life existing in purgatory. One after another, holidays come and go without any change, capped off with a Christmas surprise.

Narrative logic says reality must get worse before it can get better. In Name Only goes for the jugular. Maida seems to have achieved a satisfactory victory. Then, a defeated Alec goes on a binge and comes down with a horrible illness in the aftermath. It’s uncertain how any amount of solace or romantic equilibrium can be reestablished.

Gratefully, in one final moment of catharsis, she is ousted in front of the parents. We’ve waited long and hard for this justice, and it feels good. One is forced to ask, “At what cost?” The credits roll in providentially so we don’t have to linger on the consequence, only the emotion. Cary Grant on his deathbed isn’t an altogether familiar image or a welcomed one, for that matter. Still, this drama has its share of welcomed interludes bolstered by the main triumvirate of talent.

3.5/5 Stars

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