The spring of 1934 was the climax of Pre-Code cinema. Every week seemed to bring new outrages to theaters across the country, answered by growing clamor for reform or control. In July, Newspaper Enterprise Association correspondent Dan Thomas described H. Bruce Humberstone's Merry Wives of Reno as an "extreme in objectionable pictures...This film was loaded with suggestive situations and with dialogue which seemed to a majority of critics not only objectionable but scarcely even entertaining....Parents who dropped into the neighborhood theaters with their children for an evening's entertainment found it difficult to justify this picture as either high or low comedy."
Did patrons in Pittsburgh bring their kids? Sanford L. Cooper of the Press reported on May 25 that opening-night audiences there went crazy for Merry Wives. For him, that response revealed the film as a typical Warner Bros. product. "With regularity that is far from being monotonous these farces without stars that Warner Brothers dote on come along and make people laugh. In every one of them you'll find Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert and Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh and Ruth Donnelly, and in every one of them you'll find cause for guffaws."
If you think about it, there wouldn't be anything for the moralists to complain about if films like this weren't popular -- so what does the apparent popularity of something like Merry Wives of Reno tells us about Pre-Code audiences? What does Merry Wives itself tell us? Artistically, it's an argument against the auteur theory and in favor of the studio system. Humberstone wasn't one of Warner's house directors; he only stuck around for one more picture before moving on to Fox. But his film looks like authentic Warner Bros. stuff, a studio product stressing a stock company over stars. If there's an auteur at work it's story-department mastermind Robert Lord, who started work on Merry Wives, according to the papers, way back in 1931. The project simmered for three years -- would it have been less scandalous had it come out earlier? When it did appear, Warners pitched it in some advertising as "Funnier than Convention City" -- the Lord-scripted film that has grown legendary as the picture the studio had literally to destroy, making it the most recent major-studio release to be deemed a lost film, because it was judged impossible to edit to Code-enforcement standards. We can't verify the comparison, alas, but Merry Wives is a pretty funny film in an almost appalling way.
Merry Wives of Reno is a bawdy farce, as the mock-Shakespearean title suggests. It's a tale of three couples. Frank and Madge Hammond (Donald Woods and Margaret Lindsay) are a young New York couple celebrating their first anniversary. Frank has bought Madge a fur coat, and she's bought him an overcoat. Their next door neighbors are a middle-aged couple on the outs, Tom and Lois Fraser (Guy Kibbee and Ruth Donnelly). Sick of Tom's lies and casual infidelities, Lois has chased him out of their apartment. Frank and Tom will cross paths when Frank, a boat salesman, is invited to dinner at the home of a couple interested in making a purchase. Turns out that only the lady of the house, Bunny Fitch (Glenda Farrell) is home, and she isn't really interested in a boat. She caught a glimpse of Frank earlier outside his office and wanted to inspect him more closely. He faithfully refuses her but has to hide in her bedroom when the door seems to announce the unexpected early return of Bunny's husband, the sheep breeder J. Kingsley Finch (Hugh Herbert). But it isn't Mr. Finch -- it's Tom Fraser, who seems to know Bunny well. When Mr. Finch does arrive, both Tom and Frank have to make quick exits out a window -- but Frank has left his new overcoat behind.
Farce requires people to behave stupidly, or at least to tell panicky lies in a crisis as most people do. Frank doesn't think that Madge will believe that a crazy customer tried to seduce him and that he left his coat behind in his haste to leave, so he tells a whopper about feeling pity on a freezing beggar and giving him his nice new coat. Madge finds the story fishy but can't disprove it until the next day, when she coincidentally gets her hair done in a salon booth next to Bunny Finch, who tells her stylist all about her weird night and the young man who left his coat with her. Lois Fraser is even less trusting of Tom's tale of taking his coat (also left at Bunny's) to a late-night laundry after spilling catsup on it at a diner -- even though he does have the stuff all over his vest. The two neighbor women find themselves sharing a railroad berth to the legendary land of Reno to divorce their husbands.
The ease of divorce today makes Reno's fame obsolete, and the movie Reno may as well be a fantasyland of blithe amorality where trainloads of wives arrive to shed their marriages under Nevada's liberal laws, where lawyers flourish and everyone looks out for the main chance even more than anywhere else in the WB universe. A typical Reno denizen is Al (Frank McHugh), a glorified bellboy who doubles as a tout for divorce lawyer Oliver Derwent (Hobart Cavanaugh) and nabs Madge and Lois as clients for him. Meanwhile, after being dragged into a wild party at Tom's place to celebrate the old boy's newfound freedom, Frank takes a fast train to Reno to save his marriage, only to discover Tom on the floor of his sleeping car. "My mouth tastes like a Chinese family just moved out," the hungover Tom declares. In Reno, they track down Madge, but instead of telling the truth Frank tries to convince Madge that Tom is the very beggar to whom he gave the overcoat, and Tom backs him up with a tall tale about selling the coat and starting a business with the proceeds. The story collapses predictably enough when Lois joins the party and recognizes her husband.
While the Frasers seem irreconcilable, Madge has a hard time making up her mind to dump Frank, calling Lawyer Derwent repeatedly to cancel and then restart divorce proceedings. Her indecision forces drastic mood swings on the lawyer, who takes out his frustrations on a Venus de Milo statue. The separate appearances of the Finches in Reno complicates matters further, the overcoats appearing like accusing ghosts to damn Frank, Tom and finally Bunny as Mr. Finch renounces his unfaithful wife.
Time is running out for the inevitable reconciliations, so do you think that at least Frank will figure out the right thing to do, assuming Tom and Bunny to be hopeless? If so, you haven't seen enough Pre-Code movies, or else those you've seen won't prepare you for this one's big finish. Instead of repenting, all three spurned spouses plan revenge against their accusers. With the assistance of unscrupulous Al, who we've seen fleecing alimony from divorcees while teaching them craps, and with further assistance from trained mice, they entrap Madge, Lois and Mr. Finch into going to bed together and being caught there. With the tables turned, and witnesses confirming their contrived infidelities, the accusers capitulate and reconcile with their spouses -- even though all justice is on their side in at least two of three cases. Al claims the ladies' fur coats as payment from Frank and Tom, telling them that he could easily rat them out to their wives, and leaves the film with the furs draped over two new girlfriends. The film itself closes with Derwent getting the news of both Madge and Lois cancelling their divorces and kicking his own wife out of bed.
21st century observers may not buy the hype for Pre-Code cinema because there's almost no nudity to it and nobody swears, but Pre-Code is a matter of mood rather than explicitness, and the mood in Merry Wives of Reno is as amoral as Pre-Code gets. What we get here basically is three more or less inoffensive people being punished, in effect, for daring to be judgmental when their spouses lie to them. What a trio of killjoys, right? But you can hardly hold it against the film because its amorality is so good-natured that it isn't really passing judgment on anyone. Merry Wives is a hard-boiled comedy of the life's-a-big-joke school that leaves no hard feelings behind, no matter how insensitive it seems to us sometimes. It has the bracing "no hugs, no learning" quality of the best Seinfeld episodes, but I suppose the best comparison might be to the current ribald comedies identified in some way or other with Judd Apatow -- and it may be that the distance of time allows me to be more amused by Pre-Code comedy than by contemporary stuff that might reflect poorly on my generation or my society. Maybe the critics of 1934 just felt the same embarrassment at their films that I sometimes feel for those of my time -- maybe they thought them as stupid as they were immoral. Objectively speaking, I suppose, Merry Wives is a pretty stupid film, given that farce depends upon stupidity. But there's a right way to do stupidity, and Merry Wives does it entertainingly to say the least.
It helps to have the Warners stock company in the picture. Guy Kibbee, who gets top billing here, was one of those Pre-Code phenomena whose stardom may not have been possible in any other era of cinema. In a few years (tracked by a birthday-tribute marathon on Turner Classic Movies last week that climaxed with this film) Kibbee rose from minor but memorable character actor to character star in his early fifties. He was a lovably pathetic satyr, sometimes a playful predator, often the prey of WB's arch golddiggers like Glenda Farrell. His porcine features and manner made him a dependably comic drunk, albeit a few steps below W.C. Fields on the evolutionary ladder, but he could also get over as a middle-aged Everyman, a sap who often thought he knew more than he did. He was the sort of comic I imagine you won't see in an Apatow film: an identification figure for middle-aged moviegoers who sympathized with his struggles to keep sowing those old wild oats. This isn't really a star vehicle for him, but he's a highlight of nearly every Pre-Code film he's in. People like Farrell, Hugh Herbert and Frank McHugh -- who's probably as masterfully devious here as the archetypal stooge ever was -- are at least as essential to Warners' identity as the big guns like Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. On the evidence of Merry Wives and its reception in Pittsburgh, at least, they may have been more essential, the constants that defined humanity as Warners saw it. Were they the greatest studio stock company ever? I wouldn't dare say, but they're a lot of reasons, not to mention Joan Blondell, Allen Jenkins, etc., why I'd give any Pre-Code WB film a try.
Pre-Code remains subject to criticism for tending at extremes to a nearly-inhuman cartoonishness that leaves the period arguably more shallow than the "classical" Code-Enforcement era that followed. Merry Wives of Reno may be guilty of that shallow cartoonishness in its refusal to dwell on the emotional hurts of spousal mistrust, but you could also argue for a humane principle at play in its "judge not lest ye be judged" resolution. Its "no harm, no foul" attitude toward infidelity probably enraged the professional moralists of the day, but it's also what makes Merry Wives a strangely likable film today, as well as another essential Pre-Code document.
The original trailer sells the show with extra sex appeal, thanks to Turner Classic Movies.