I Love You Again is a knockabout Hollywood farce, a cock-eyed “comedy of remarriage” – The Philadelphia Story is the king of the genre – done in rat-a-rat style by the crack team of director WS Van Dyke and his stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Van Dyke was known as One Take Woody, for reasons that don’t need explaining, and at this point had worked together with Powell and Loy on three Thin Man films, which had done all three of them a lot of favours.
If you’re not familiar with the Thin Man films (there would eventually be six; the first three are the best), they all feature Powell and Loy as a pair of rich, dilettante amateur detectives who solve crimes between drinking vast amounts of alcohol. Way down the line the films inspired the TV show Hart to Hart, where the drinking was less intense but the idea was the same.
Playing with Powell’s screen baggage, I Love You Again opens with a joke – Powell as a very abstemious penny-pinching smalltown fuddy-duddy, the exact opposite of his Thin Man character, a passenger on a ship where he’s obviously been boring everyone to death for the entire journey.
In a plot that stands little examination, boring Larry Wilson (Powell) gets a crack on the head from an oar while rescuing a drunk who’s fallen overboard. When he wakes up he’s no longer Larry Wilson but George Carey, a wily, wisecracking, womanising card sharp with an eye always on the main chance. It seems that at some point in the past, Carey too got a crack on the head, causing his personality to change. Since then he’s been living a modest suburban life as Larry Wilson but now Carey has re-asserted himself. So, a “double amnesia” plot. Remarkably, thanks to slick, witty writing, this potential head-scratcher is both plausible and digestible.
Believing Larry to be loaded, George decides to keep up the pretence that he is him (he is him, after all), especially when he catches a load of Larry’s wife, Kay (Myrna Loy). These are some of the film’s best scenes – George attempting to edge his way back into Larry’s life and into his wife’s bed, only slightly deterred by the fact that she hates him and wants a divorce. She’s already engaged to another man, in fact, a big lunk called Herbert (Donald Douglas). In a subplot that feels a bit tacked on, George also realises that for a conman like him, without scruples, the veneer of (Larry’s) respectability gives him brilliant cover.
Along for the ride is the drunk Larry/George saved from drowning, for reasons that also don’t bear too much scrutiny, but Frank McHugh as streetwise shyster “Doc” Ryan (Doc is his nickname, but Wilson/Carey passes him off as his personal physician) is one of this film’s comedic lubricants, a Warner Bros character player always popping up in second-banana roles like this and another good reason for watching this film.
The script now manipulates Larry/George, Doc and Kay through several set pieces in which Larry/George tries to woo back the wife who hates him, while at the same time trying to separate the town’s notables from a sizeable chunk of their own money, aided and abetted by Doc and old gangster buddy Duke Sheldon (Edmund Lowe).
Really, the plot is preposterous and there are too many characters swilling around – especially Duke – and yet the whole thing glides along, powered by Powell’s brilliant talent for comedy. It’s his film rather than Loy’s.
This is a frequently funny film with a lot of good gags, often about booze, but it also has a big heart. Larry Wilson may have been a terrible bore and an insufferable prig but he was a decent guy at bottom, something George Carey is not. In Hollywood movies, then as now, when it comes to a clash between big-city and smalltown values, smart money favours the latter. I’ll say no more.
What a superb looking film this is too. Sharp, with beautifully graded tones. Van Dyke may have worked fast but he clearly understood quality. His DP, Oliver T Marsh, wasn’t one of the big names of the craft, possibly because he died relatively young the year after this film came out, but his lighting and control of the grey scale is superb.
It’s superb all round in fact – the writing, the direction, the acting, even the clothes are fabulous, a hark back to the escapist Depression-era movies that made Powell and Loy stars.
Strangely overlooked when people talk about 1940s comedies, I Love You Again is old-school Tinseltown entertainment of the highest order and deserves to be on any list containing the likes of Sullivan’s Travels, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib or His Girl Friday.
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