|Released by Warner Bros.
Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone
Run time: 66 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- It’s a long gag on divorce. Even though two of the couples in the film stick together, the movie showcases women flaunting their many marriages, many affairs, and much fun.
- It actually opens with a husband and wife in bed together! In their pajamas and everything!
- “What am I, an errand boy?” “Yes. You aren’t good for anything else around here anymore!”
- There’s a bout of suggestive whispering that does a lot of work.
- “It’s going to be a pajama party!” a woman cries before pulling down her dress.
- “Do you know him?” “Not as well as my wife did!”
- There is definitely a reason why Farrell and Herbert get the last name of ‘Fitch’.
- The film climaxes with a menage a trois gag. Wording intentional.
Merry Wives of Reno: We Roll Along
“Where are you going?!”
“I’m going to pieces!”
My first reaction to The Merry Wives of Reno as it strolled through the opening credits was, “What a cast!” That was pretty much my takeaway, too, though I was dismayed that the actual film gave them spartan else to do with their usual characterizations.
Anyone with a fondness with the pre-Code Warner Bros. stable of character actors will also be duly impressed: comedic impresarios like Guy Kibbee, Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly, Frank McHugh, and Hugh Herbert get long chunks of the movie to riff on. Unfortunately, they’re saddled with an equal time clause with the two ‘straight’ leads, and a screenplay that somehow feels deeply padded despite barely tripping over the hour mark. The jokes in each scene run out before the scene does, leaving wild gesticulations and desperate cutaways to fill the cracks.
Tom (Kibbee) and Lois (Donnelly) are unhappily married. Madge (Lindsay) and Frank (Woods) are happily married. Bunny (Farrell) is a vamp, her husband the Colonel (Herbert) a dolt. Bunny seduces Tom and tries her hand at Frank as well, leading to a misunderstanding. Soon all six of these people are headed to Reno, either trying to divorce, prevent divorce, or, in the Colonel’s case, play with his pet sheep. (That one is a little odd.) A gigolo bellboy named Al (McHugh) keeps everything humming along.
Divorce (or “The Cure” as McHugh jokingly calls it) is a frivolous joke in this film’s world. Merry Wives eviscerates the taboo surrounding it, painting Reno as a bacchanal where women trade husbands like playing card, and the only rule seems to aim towards pleasure. The movie was made for the audience’s visceral joy; in an era where divorced women were sophisticated and scandalous, this gives plenty of room for imaginations to run wild.
But the screenplay has trouble juggling all the schticks; it’s so complicated, I made it to this point of the review before I even remembered that Roscoe Ates pops in for a bit. Margaret Lindsay and Donald Woods are a little too serious to fit in with everyone else; Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler can at least get to this level of ham, Lindsay and Woods seem like they’ve fallen into the wrong universe.
Merry Wives of Reno has a lot of talent in front of the camera, but not a lot of care was put into assembling the pieces. This is one of those minor outputs of the era; it’s got a great cast, but they’re better elsewhere, and they were in a lot of elsewhere.
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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links
- One of only two films featuring both Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel.
- Not really much out there about this one; my guess is that it was probably made in two weeks with leftover pieces of other scripts.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon on a double feature with Smarty. Thanks to Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this film.