Director: W. S. Van Dyke II
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Jean Hersholt, John Eldredge, Joseph Calleia, Samuel S. Hinds
Screenplay: Leon Gordon, John Meehan and Tess Slesinger (uncredited), based upon a story by George Auerbach
This is one weird film. It’s as if two different screenplays met in a violent head-on collision, and became so tangled that it was decided not to try and separate them, but just to film whatever remained. The result is a convoluted story that manages to carry Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck from the nightclubs of New York to the depths of the jungle, and sees them swapping luxury, cocktails and soft music for dirt, humidity and disease, and a life devoted to medical research. I doubt my discerning readers will have any difficulty guessing which half of this film is the more credible.
I should probably start this review with a disclaimer: I’ve always had a problem with Robert Taylor. Whether it is his own personality showing through, or merely a reflection of the roles he was called upon to play by MGM, is, of course, impossible to say; but with the exception of a few films – in particular, When Ladies Meet, Johnny Eager and High Wall – I tend to find his screen persona terribly abrasive, while his supposed “boyishness” too often strikes me as mere childish petulance.
So you’ll understand that His Brother’s Wife caught me on my bad side from its opening scene, where it is revealed that here Taylor is playing a scientist; and where he establishes the nature of his character, Chris Claybourne, by turning up at his place of employment drunk as a skunk, breaking equipment as he staggers around the place, and being as rude as possible to the representatives of the Rothmore Mines Syndicate, from whom his employer, Professor Farenheim (Jean Hersholt), is trying to coax the funds for a medical expedition to conduct on-the-spot research into the deadly spotted fever that is decimating the local population of an undetermined region of the tropics, the mine’s employees among them.
Rather improbably, the verbal abuse persuades Farenheim’s potential backers to pony up the dough, at which point we learn that Chris, too, will be a member of the expedition, which is due to depart in ten days’ time. Chris then wanders off to a nightclub, more specifically to the gambling-rooms in the back, where he drops a bundle, and also encounters professional mannequin Rita Wilson (Barbara Stanwyck). The two take an immediate liking to one another, but when Chris makes his imminent departure clear, they agree to spend the intervening days having fun and being “just pals”. Needless to say, by the end of that time they are very much in love, and Chris declares his intention of quitting the expedition and marrying Rita instead. However, crime boss “Fish-Eye” (Joseph Calleia) has no idea of allowing Chris to leave the country without paying his debts. Instead, promising him time to pay, he tricks Chris into writing out a cheque for the amount owing before witnesses, which in light of Chris’s financial situation counts as “passing a bad cheque”.
With jail now threatening unless he pays up immediately, Chris turns in desperation to his phlegmatic older brother, Tom (John Eldredge). Tom is not at all pleased about Chris’s situation, but finally promises to pay Chris’s debts, at considerable inconvenience to himself, on condition that he goes with Farenheim as arranged and takes no immediate step with respect to Rita. Left with little choice, Chris reluctantly agrees, but swears to Rita that he will come back and marry her.
Rita, however, is convinced that she has been judged and found unsuitable to be a member of the blue-blooded Claybourne family – which is true, as far as it goes, although Tom’s main motivation in compelling Chris to go with Farenheim is his revulsion at the thought of a Claybourne being “a quitter” – and she begins to plot revenge. She makes an arrangement with Fish-Eye wherein she takes over Chris’s debt, in exchange for which she works to lure wealthy suckers to the gambling-den. When Tom comes to pay Chris’s debts, he learns to his astonishment that they have been paid already, although Fish-Eye denies knowing by whom. Rita manages an “accidental” meeting with Tom, during which she is just as sweet as pie, assuring him that she knows now that he was right about everything, and that she and Chris were just “kidding themselves”. Before long, Tom is neglecting both his patients and his long-suffering fiancée to spend his time with Rita…
Meanwhile, out in the jungle, Chris’s bitter disappointment at hearing nothing from Rita, combined with the stresses and dangers of the work, have reduced him to a state of near nervous collapse. Receiving a leave of absence, Chris heads back to New York, desperate to find Rita, but upon reaching home is greeted by a tale of disaster: the destruction of Tom’s life, and the news that Rita is now “his brother’s wife”…
There’s a lot wrong with His Brother’s Wife, but to me it is finally a matter of attitude: the film is has a nasty streak of snobbery during its first half, which gives way in its second half to a racially-insensitive mindset that is even worse. The former is evident in the screenplay’s treatment of its central characters. There is a distinct sense that although Chris spends his time getting drunk, running up gambling debts he can’t pay and expecting his family to clean up his messes, we’re supposed to forgive him because he went to the right schools. On the other hand, Rita drops her ‘g’-s, so obviously her behaviour is beyond the pale.
When Chris gets home from the tropics and must confront the ruin that was his brother, the film’s stance is very much “poor Tom”, rather than, say, “stupid Tom” or “spineless Tom” or “thinking-with-his-second-brain Tom”. Hearing of the circumstances of the marriage – Rita deserting Tom at the altar after throwing her revenge-scheme in his face and laughing herself sick – Chris delivers a vicious denunciation of his former love before urging Tom to divorce her. Tom refuses this point-blank, insisting that Rita is “in his blood”, and that, “My only satisfaction is that – she is my wife.”
Chris decides that the matter won’t be left in Tom’s hands, and sets out to track Rita down. When he does, he convinces her that he still loves her. She does love him still, and admits that her scheme of revenge has brought her nothing but unhappiness. She agrees without hesitation to Chris’s proposal of returning to the jungle with him, in order to give Tom both the impetus and the grounds for divorce.
(Given that the dialogue makes it clear that Rita deserted Tom immediately after the ceremony, I would have thought that an annulment would have been more to the point; but that, I suppose, would be too simple, and insufficiently time-consuming.
Setting up housekeeping in the wilds of wherever, Rita sets about being the perfect wife (although it’s separate beds, of course), keeping house, making herself useful in the clinic in defiance of Chris’s orders, winning the affection and admiration of Professor Farenheim, and suffering the heat, the primitive conditions, and the threat of disease uncomplainingly. The long-awaited boat, bearing the critical letter from Dr Claybourne Sr announcing Tom’s divorce, does finally arrive. Finding herself free, Rita turns joyously to Chris in expectation of marriage plans, but Chris tells her coldly that he has no intention of marrying her, and never did: everything he did was to gain Tom’s release, and his only plan is to put Rita on the next boat back to the States.
Fate, however, has other ideas.
In a general sense, His Brother’s Wife sits beside the later medical dramas Green Light and Yellow Jack. Like the former, it is concerned, overtly at least, with identifying the means of transmission of spotted fever; while like the latter, the search for answers finally leads to the grim necessity of human experimentation. In terms of both content and attitude, however, His Brother’s Wife is only a pale shadow of its companion pieces. There is no sense here that anyone involved in this production had the slightest real interest in spotted fever and its elucidation, or regarded the jungle research facility as anything other than an exotic backdrop for the romantic travails of its central characters.
The underlying disinterest is highlighted by the carelessness with which this aspect of the film is presented. In its opening sequence, we watch as specimens of the tick suspected of transmitting spotted fever are collected for shipment to New York. The jars are labelled Dermacentores venusti (which, not to repeat an earlier argument, is an odd use of the plural form of Dermacentor venustus), later re-named Dermacentor andersoni.
The problem with this is that while the tick collection is accompanied by footage of “natives” in an identified region of the tropics, D. andersoni, known more familiarly as the Rocky Mountain wood tick, is found only throughout the western regions of the United States and Canada. It is, as its name suggests, the main vector of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This disease does also occur in the eastern US and Mexico, through Central America and down into Brazil and Columbia, but in these areas D. andersoni is not the means of transmission.
His Brother’s Wife never does get around to telling us where the scientists are supposed to be conducting their research (although at various points the region is described oh-so-charmingly as a “rotten fungus swamp” and as having “fallen off the back of a garbage truck”), but wherever it is, it cannot be D. andersoni at the root of their problems. It is very evident here that to the writers of this film, spotted fever was spotted fever, and a tick, just a tick. After all, what kind of strange person would worry about a detail like that, when they could be worrying about whether Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck would ever get together?
The other scientific puzzle here is what, exactly, the researchers are trying to prove. That spotted fever was caused by bacteria of the genus Rickettsia, and that it was transmitted by ticks, had been known for two full decades when His Brother’s Wife was made, with vaccines against the disease available for almost as long. The film, however, greats it all like some great mystery. One of Chris Claybourne’s tantrums – of which there are many – makes it clear that they don’t know what is causing, or at least transmitting, the disease. The tick is suspected, but it’s only a theory, one they have been unable to prove.
(Proving this was indeed difficult: the bacteria that cause spotted fever live inside the cells of the tick like a virus, while the tick itself requires a range of hosts during its life cycle; all of which greatly complicated the research.)
Their research has been a litany of failure, although Professor Farenheim takes the philosophical view that failure, too, brings knowledge; it is all a process of elimination. This is fair enough, except when we consider what else is being “eliminated”.
The film’s dismissive attitude to the natives, who are, after all, the ones dying of the disease, is just appalling. “We’ve lost nine thousand workers over the past two years!” announces the representative of the mine owners at the beginning of the film, his tone making it clear that it is loss of revenue, not loss of life, that prompts them to fund the research. By the time we catch up with Chris and the others, two members of the seven-man research team have already died of fever. This, of course, is treated as a great tragedy, in comparison to the handling of the deaths of the natives that have occurred over the same period…which are to the best of our knowledge the direct result of the researchers experimenting on them.
“We’ve made a hundred tries on a hundred natives, and eighty of them are dead!” Chris announces, and his lack of concern for the human cost involved in the work could not be more evident. Furthermore, we are never given any indication of where those “hundred natives” came from, or how they came to be the subject of the scientists’ experiments in the first place. One would like to think they volunteered, but…
When this passing reference to dead natives is made, Chris is undergoing a complete meltdown. It is not having received a single letter from Rita that has worked him up into this state of nervous tension, which Professor Farenheim realises and excuses. The viewer is unlikely to be so lenient.
Chris Claybourne is, in fact, a scientist to turn your hair white. We never do find out what his qualifications are, or why he volunteered for the expedition. He makes a lot of speeches early on about the “nobility” of it all, but chiefly by way of praising Farenheim. He certainly doesn’t seem to find anything very noble himself about the realities of research in the tropics. While his colleagues toil stoically on, suffering the physical and emotional strains of their work and environment without complaint, Chris whines and moans incessantly about his own discomfort and the pointlessness of the research. “I came a long way for this tick fantasy!” he throws at Farenheim. “I never believed in it! I never said I did!”
An interruption comes in the form of a native woman with a sick baby, who she fears has the fever. Farenheim reassures her and treats the child, but this incident gives further fuel to Chris’s fire. With an ugly laugh, he jeers, “We’ve cured a baby with a bellyache: that’s great work! Science is marvellous! – but I’m sick of it!” He then announces his imminent departure for New York, adding, “If anyone’s got anything to saying about ‘quitting’, save it until after I’m gone! I don’t want to hear it!” His colleagues do indeed maintain a stony silence; they’re probably thrilled at the prospect of seeing the back of him. Chris then delivers the following parting speech before walking out:
“So long, pals! Cheer up! We’re not failures! No! – the miracle of the baby with a colic will keep the natives shouting hosannas till I see you again!”
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
(When Chris reaches New York, he excuses his arrival by saying he received “an official leave of absence”. Hmm…)
When we re-join the researchers for the final third of the film, we find that Rita, intriguingly enough, has seen past the heat and the dirt and the danger of the situation, and grasped its essence. Gazing dreamily into space one morning, she observes, “Why isn’t every man a scientist? Do you know, there’s more romance in a laboratory among ticks and tubes, than in all the nightclubs in Manhattan. There isn’t anything more exciting than making Nature open up its secrets!”
But in directing this speech at Chris, she might as well be addressing the empty air: his opinion has not altered one iota. Yet it is, of course – nauseatingly enough – Chris who gets the Lightbulb Moment©. In the infirmary, a third member of the team is dying of fever. Chris tries to find out how he contracted the disease, running through all the other possible routes of infection, but the man will say only, “Ticks…ticks…”, thus driving Chris into a frenzy. But then light dawns. Chris rushes out to pluck some ticks from disease-free goats, and places them on some guinea-pigs, which become sick. Recognising that the goats must be immune, Chris then bleeds them and prepares a serum that he hopes will save the life of his colleague.
(Excuse me: they’ve been working on this how long? And it didn’t occur to them until now that the ticks’ hosts must have a natural immunity? And they call themselves scientists!?)
Chris’s serum cures the sick guinea-pigs. The patient is then injected with it, but dies anyway. Farenheim tries to comfort Chris, who sees only another failure, by insisting that the man was too far gone to receive any benefit. At this juncture, the fatal letter arrives from New York, and Rita receives her marching orders. Ironically enough, however, while she is packing the others receive a visit from representatives of “His Excellency, the Governor”, and are given their marching orders.
Farenheim and Chris argue that they’re on the right track now, and had planned to travel to the interior, to the mines, and test the serum on someone – a native, naturally – not so far gone with fever. “And if the man dies?” asks an official. “Ah, he’d die anyway!” retorts Chris, with all the compassion that we’ve come to expect from him. The officials are unpersuaded – although their main argument, that the scientists had no right to experiment on any of the natives, is dismissed as a mere quibble by Chris and Farenheim! “What is this, a lot of filthy politics!? Are you bozos afraid of losing your jobs!?” explodes Chris, with all the tact and diplomacy that we’ve come to expect of him. The governor’s representative then warns the scientists that if any of the natives now die as a result of their treatment, they will be indicted for murder.
One wonders where this guy was eighty natives ago.
Their visitors gone, Farenheim shakes his head sadly. “Science has always had to fight superstition and ignorance,” he comments.
“And from now on, I want what my hands can feel and my eyes can see! – and the deep dark secrets can stay up in the cosmic spaces!” announces Chris, with all the emotional maturity that we’ve…well, you know.
At this point, Rita asks drily, “Quitting?” Chris evades the point, and Rita turns to Farenhein, pointing out that while they need an experimental subject, they don’t dare use one of the natives. She volunteers herself for the job.
Farenheim exclaims at the offer and immediately rejects it, making it clear that he believes in Rita’s sincerity. Chris, however, sneeringly accuses her of grand-standing. “She knows there aren’t two men on the face of the earth who’d infect a woman with a deadly disease for a risky experiment!” he declares angrily.
Oh, really? Perhaps we should ask Major Walter Reed and Nurse Clara Maass about that.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how what’s supposedly intended to show respect for women often feels a lot more like contempt for women?
Anyway, Chris gets his way and packs Rita off. She is waiting in town for her boat when she runs into another member of the research team who has just been paid off and sent home, learning from him that Chris and Farenheim have gone off into the interior anyway, and that Chris plans to experiment on himself.
A panicked Rita dobs them in to the authorities, but they move too slowly to suit her, and in the end she sets off after the others herself, arriving just in time. Seeing the injection that is supposed to give Chris spotted fever, she takes advantage of the others’ distraction and infects herself with the disease…
BUT— Well, this is a romantic drama from MGM, after all, and one not based on a literary classic, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that it all ends happily. Not as happily as if Chris Claybourne had injected himself with spotted fever and died horribly, of course, but I guess you can’t have everything.
However, in justice I am compelled to point out that during the 1930s, there were many, many people in the world who violently disagreed with my opinion of Robert Taylor, and that one of them was Barbara Stanwyck. When Taylor and Stanwyck began being seen in public together during the making of this film, the MGM publicity department leapt at the chance to make mileage out of the situation, promoting the relationship in the press, smothering the advertising art for His Brother’s Wife with references to America’s Exciting New Sweethearts, and re-teaming the two of them in 1937’s This Is My Affair. Behind the scenes, it seems, the situation was more than a little peculiar (just how peculiar depends upon who you believe), but no-one at MGM cared as long at it looked good on the surface.
Another two years on, however, and the Taylor-Stanwyck “romance” was starting to attract a less publicity-friendly description in some quarters. Louis B. Mayer then intervened, encouraging, not to say insisting upon, marriage, and the two were wed in 1939. It lasted twelve rather rocky years, until Taylor walked out in 1951. The divorce garnered even more publicity than the original pairing, a situation finally exploited when Stanwyck and Taylor were cast together in The Night Walker, produced and directed by none other than William Castle.
That’s Hollywood for you. Land of strange bedfellows…