Today we reminisce about
The Wife Takes a Flyer (1942)
Directed by Richard Wallace
Starring: Joan Bennett, Franchot Tone, Allyn Joslyn
* Published specifically for The Joan Bennett Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days of Hollywood *
The resemblance of (the) characters to any Nazi military figures is intentional and not coincidental and is done with premeditation and extreme malice aforethought.
Somewhere in Holland, Major Zellfritz (Allyn Joslyn) is on the hunt for a British flyer who has recently been shot down by the Germans and who had initially been thought to have perished. After getting word that the flyer had survived the crash, the Major intensifies his efforts to capture the enemy. However, he is stopped in his tracks by a sight that is much more interesting: a sleek pair of legs belonging to a beautiful Dutch woman named Anita Woverman (Joan Bennett). Zellfritz waits for Anita to enter her home and then decides to follow her. He discovers that one of his colleagues, an S.S. Corporal, has already been stationed to the Woverman household and lives there on a permanent basis. In a very bold move, Zellfritz announces that he will now occupy the post and since he has a superior rank, no questions are asked. The Woverman family does not have a say in the decision.
As Zellfritz settles in, he learns that Anita is actually the Wovermans’ daughter-in-law and is married to their son, Hendrik. It has been some time since the two have lived as a married couple, however, as Hendrik has been institutionalised in a sanatorium following a nervous breakdown. With the support of her in-laws, Anita is actively seeking a divorce from her husband though has thus far been denied by the courts who insist on Hendrik being present for the proceedings. Conveniently, Hendrik is scheduled to be released that very evening so that he can appear in court the next morning. A potential break-up of her marriage delights Zellfritz who makes no attempt to hide the feelings of lust and desire he has for Anita, much to everyone else’s chagrin. Just as the Major is starting to get comfortable, his men storm the house demanding to conduct a thorough search of the premises. It just so happens that the downed British pilot, Christopher Reynolds (Franchot Tone), has discreetly sought refuge at the Woverman residence and is now on the cusp of being discovered. With quick thinking, Mrs. Woverman decides to pass Chris off as Hendrik.
The plan generally goes well despite continued interrogations and digging of information from the Major. Chris feigns being Hendrik quite well, making him seem very loopy and unstable yet fiercely attached to his wife, allowing him some private time with Anita to talk over their “marriage”. The next day, his act continues in the courtroom where he pretends to be very intoxicated and makes a complete fool of himself, eventually granting Anita an immediate divorce but not before Chris passes on some important secret Allied effort documents to her. With Zellfritz waiting in the wings to start publicly courting her, Anita announces that she wishes to be alone for a while and quickly disappears, not letting anyone know where she is. For her safety, she has decided to stay with a large group of older, spinster women because it is unlikely that anyone would look for her there. She does not remain incognito for long after she makes a phone call to Chris at the Woverman residence, not knowing that the line has been tapped via Zellfritz’s strict orders. Soon the Major shows up at her doorstep, followed shortly thereafter followed by Chris.
It is somewhat of a headache for Chris to figure out how he is going to access the secret documents but his worries are temporarily set aside when he overhears that Zellfritz has a very powerful cousin in the S.S. who can provide information that will eventually (without the Nazi’s knowledge) be used to benefit the Allies. Chris suggests that Anita go out for a night on the town with Zellfritz to get him drunk and talking. She is not especially interested to do so but finally agrees to do so to help the war effort. In the meantime, Chris meets one of his recognisance agents and together they discover that the Gestapo has been manipulating Allied radio communications. The two men manage to dispose of the Nazis but are too late to save one of their comrades but then vow that no more innocent lives will be taken if they can help it. Anita and the spinsters also join in. In the end, they all come together to defeat Zellfritz and go on with their lives.
Thoughts and Discussion
The Wife Takes a Flyer started filming approximately 27 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor on 6 December 1941. A day later, the United States officially entered the war to fight in the Allied effort. Anti-Nazi propaganda had been shown & distributed in the U.S. for some time and Americans had closely followed the progression of the war but now things were different: this was personal. This film is a reflection of the sentiments felt during the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. It was enough to help sooth anger and fear by directly mocking Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party as well as provide some well-needed laughs to boost morale.
Although the film fulfilled its purpose in early 1942, it is not a picture that ages well. In fact, it seems wholly inappropriate in regard to the remaining time left in the war. Those actively fighting quickly learned how very serious the situation was around the globe, particularly in Eastern Europe where mass atrocities of the Holocaust were taking place. In fact, many people in the United States and other places did not learn the sheer extent of the destruction and genocide until after the war ended. There are many moments in the film where dark humour is used to describe living conditions or to poke fun at Nazi behaviour. Some are enough to make one squeamish.
Zellfritz: “An excellent dinner. Excellent. No meat but what of it? I am tired of meat. I eat it three times a day.”
Zellfritz: “I enjoyed your coffee almost as much as the executions this morning.”
Gestapo member: “Are you prepared to kill your own child if necessary in the Führer’s interests?”
Chris: “Well, who wouldn’t kill their own child… for the Führer?”
There is not really a romance aspect to the film despite it being considered as a romantic comedy. Anita and Chris are very polite to one another and have very fine chemistry but there is not one moment when either one of them goes out of line with the other. This is something I find believable because their minds were on other things: her getting her divorce and eventually helping out Chris and him with completing his assignment. Even towards the end when they are both free, there are no sparks. The dark comedy aspect to the film is present but it is dominated by the stark Nazi reality, particularly past the one hour mark when the story starts to get more serious. If anything, I was frightful during certain moments of the film when forced searches were being conducted by the S.S. and when someone was captured. Allyn Joslyn’s imitation of a Nazi Major who looks strikingly like Adolf Hitler was amusing on one hand and far too lifelike for comfort on the other. Even though Zellfritz was dumbed down, he still had the power to be very dangerous.
On a positive note, the film did a very good job of showing the restrictions placed on society during the Nazi occupation. Officers could claim any residence as their own, either completely kicking the family out or having them live as usual being constantly surveilled. There was almost zero privacy as their phone calls were listened in on, their mail and telegrams were intercepted, and they could be walked in on at any moment. Not only that, their belongings and resources could be used by the Nazis at will. It was indeed a difficult time to be in existence.
While the film tries to end on a lighter note, it is clearly only a happy ending for the lead characters who manage to escape the Nazis. Those who helped them plan their escape will undoubtedly be found out and face severe punishment or extermination. Sadly enough, even entire villages could pay the price in such situations. The Wife Takes a Flyer remains problematic on the whole with few redeeming qualities despite a very talented cast and, at the time, the best of intentions.
Joan is someone who always struck me as being elusive mostly because she was so beautiful but also due to the fact that she starred in a variety of genre films that were striking and unique. One of the first films that I ever saw of hers was Man Hunt (1941), in which she co-starred with Walter Pidgeon. This was another war time picture that was very heavy in suspense and in drama. In it, Joan plays a very brave young woman who is killed when she protects the man she loves from the Germans. Her performance struck a chord with me and from then on, I was a fan and always looked out for her other work. She was quite a natural in thrillers and film noirs like Scarlet Street (1945), The Macomber Affair and The Woman on the Beach (both 1947); so much so that it seemed odd for her to suddenly be cast in straight-laced motherly roles in the latter portion of her career. It is surprising that she is not better known today and was not more acclaimed in her day, regardless of the events in her personal life. There was something magical about her.
(L) Franchot Tone; (R) John Hubbard, Bennett & Tone on the set of She Knew All the Answers.
As Anita, Joan does an ample job of animating her character and giving her a personality. She and Franchot Tone work well together and had actually appeared with one another the year before in 1941’s She Knew All the Answers. There was not a great deal of passion between the two but it is clear that they were friendly and could have easily played friends or even siblings. Her reactions to Joslyn were perfectly dismissive yet she never acted in a way that would call attention to her behaviour or set her apart from the crowd. All of the actors were very liberal in their interpretations of nationality. Both Bennnett and Tone used their normal American accents even though they were supposed to be Dutch and British respectively. Joslyn’s German accent was purposefully exaggerated and varied in levels of intensity. Accuracy was not a requirement in the making of this film and it considering that it was filmed in a little over 6 weeks time, I suppose you should not ask for much more than it delivers. There is little question that Joan has more deserving credits in her filmography that you should check out. Nonetheless, everyone did what they could at the time with this very “in the moment” film.
My friend Laura also wrote about this film and reading her lovely review will surely give you a more global impression of The Wife Takes a Flyer.