Holy Matrimony (1943)

“Don’t you understand? You’re burying the wrong man!”

Synopsis:
Desperately seeking to avoid media attention, a famous but reclusive painter named Priam Farll (Monty Woolley) assumes the identity of his deceased valet, Henry Leek (Eric Blore), and marries the woman (Gracie Fields) Leek had recently contacted via a matrimonial agency. His peaceful life of anonymity is soon disrupted, however, when an ambitious art dealer (Laird Cregar) begins to sell his latest paintings, and suspicions arise that “Priam Farll” isn’t really dead.

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Review:
Monty Woolley is perhaps best known for his starring role in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s acerbically madcap play The Man Who Came to Dinner (turned into a film in 1942) — yet his titular performance as the too-nasty-for-words theater critic Sheridan Whiteside doesn’t display him in anything close to his best light. I much prefer Woolley’s Oscar-nominated role in the wartime adventure drama The Pied Piper (1942), as well as his work in this gentle “comedy of errors”, about a world-class painter so desperate to be left alone that he willingly adopts another identity altogether. While Nunnally Johnson’s Oscar-nominated screenplay (based on a novel by Arnold Bennett) strains credibility time and again, it presents such an appealing scenario in the unlikely marriage between Woolley and Fields that one willingly suspends disbelief and criticism.

Comedienne and singer Gracie Fields was once one of England’s most popular performers, and her appeal is in full evidence here. From the moment she mistakes Woolley for his valet and rescues him from a trip to the jailhouse, we can’t help breathing a sigh of relief for the good fortune Woolley — who’s accustomed to having all his needs taken care of by someone else — has chanced upon. Their marriage-of-convenience is nothing short of charming, thanks in large part to Fields’ unceasing good grace and common sense, and Woolley’s clear appreciation of said characteristics. The complications that inevitably ensue — including the appearance of Blore’s estranged wife (Una O’Connor) and grown sons, and Fields’ sudden need to earn additional money for house payments — simply allow Fields to show us once and again why Woolley’s character is a damned lucky fellow. (And fortunately, he knows it!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gracie Fields as Alice
  • Monty Woolley as Priam/Henry

Must See?
Yes, for the lead performances.

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One Response to “Holy Matrimony (1943)”

  1. Agreed – a (once-)must for the lead performances (and for the performances in general).

    I’m glad the assessment brings out the fact that this amusing concoction has a number of moments in which it “strains credibility”. That’s certainly true, though not to the degree that it becomes an annoyance (it just makes some situations a bit silly).

    Said moments are a small price to pay, however, for the good time guaranteed in the company of Fields and Woolley. Particularly Fields: though this is one of Woolley’s finest roles, he does lean on his irascible nature – which is fine, but it’s delightful watching the quietly-in-control Fields temper him, and it’s adorable watching Woolley allowing himself to be tempered. They are a charming couple together.

    Fields also shines when apart from Woolley. One of the film’s highlights is the sequence in which she expertly wends her way through the sticky patch of dispatching O’Connor (also delightful here in a meaty supporting role), in tow with her somewhat-bizarrely devoted sons.

    Interesting side note for gay ffs: the casting of Woolley, Cregar, Blore and Franklin Pangborn prominently in one film. Though apparently the verdict is not in conclusively on all four, it’s intriguing to see these (for all intents and purposes) gay men grouped in this way. Pangborn, as always, is Pangborn. But the others have a certain veneer of heterosexuality: Blore is seen as a potential bigamist, Cregar – for a change – is not menacing and has a decidedly macho bravado; and Woolley finds marital bliss with a woman (even if there is no real hint of physical intimacy).

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