Even big stars can’t bring sense to a muddle

I’ve twice seen the 1953 movie Dream Wife recently and have twice had the same the same response. It just isn’t a very good movie. Even stars like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr can’t save it, though they do make it more palatable.

But it is interesting in its way, partly for what it might have been and partly for the sight of good actors (Grant and Kerr) working with material that lacks cogency. They appear alternately stiff and bored.

Dream Wife (1953)

Directed by Sidney Sheldon

This 1953 movie, Dream Wife, is confused at best. It has two big stars — Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr — who would later be brought together for 1957’s An Affair to Remember. It gives the impression of not knowing what to do with them but it’s a false impression.

It knows how to use its stars; it just doesn’t have anything to use them in. This is because apart from a superficially amusing idea — Cary Grant wants to marry; Deborah Kerr is too busy — it doesn’t know what it is about.

So we end up with a muddle.

Frankly, while he provides some very good moments, Cary Grant mostly looks frustrated by the realization he is in a muddle.

Betta St. John as Tarji, Cary Grant as Clemson Reade and Deborah Kerr as Effie -- all looking helpless in a confused script.

Kerr, on the other hand, appears to be doing the British “stiff upper lip” thing, moving through the film with aplomb despite the jumble.

It’s probably a more frustrating movie to today’s audience than to an audience of the early 1950s. It tackles relationships between men and women by what would then have been a role reversal. It isn’t a woman trying to get a man to finally marry; it’s the man trying to get married.

But his reasons are self-centred masculine ones. Grant’s Clemson Reade is romantic because he wants a wife to care for him, clean his house and generally devote her entire life to his wants and needs.

Kerr, unfortunately, is more practical and business-like and, most importantly, a feminist. She has no intention of devoting her life to caring for “her man.” She makes repeated references to women in history and how she, and all women, are free.

In response, Grant finds a princess from another country who has been raised for just one thing: caring for the man she marries. Her life has no meaning beyond that. Through a series of comic scenes, Grant discovers marrying such a woman (from a foreign land with different customs) is not so easy. And a woman with the devotion he wants isn’t quite the wonderful thing it seems.

Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in a mistaken identity moment, Grant looking stiff and awkward, Kerr looking as if she's just realzed what a mess she is in.

And on it goes. The movie would have been a surprisingly feminist one had it continued along the line it heads down. But it trips up and becomes disappointingly anti-feminist when Grant and Kerr begin to reconcile and Kerr realizes that she does want to devote herself to a man. It just has to be the right man. In this case, that man is Grant.

This is one of those films that unwittingly ventures into social and cultural politics and, because it does and because it is unaware of this, creates confusion as it starts going one way then changes direction to reflect the attitudes of the period.

It’s just too in love with its one joke — Cary Grant trying to get married within a context of different cultures colliding — and never thinks anything through.

It’s just a muddle.

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