The Rear View: Wives and Lovers (1963)

wives-and-lovers-movie-poster-1963-1020488084Part of the appeal of internet on-demand video services is that places like Netflix and Amazon Prime need scores of content in order to boast to consumers that they have tens of thousands of titles to choose from. Enter, the forgotten gems of Hollywood past. Unless you were alive and in tune with what movie studios were pumping out mid-20th century, the Paramount comedy Wives & Lovers most likely has never entered into one of your conversations about classic films. It’s too bad, because this is a smart, funny and entertaining film.

I recently heard of this film because a song of the same name, released in connection with the film in 1963, came up in conversation because of it’s perception as being misogynistic. Wait, a song from the sixties is considered by some to be misogynistic? Get outta here. Listen to it yourself if you like. “Wives and Lovers” by Jack Jones:

While the words of the song are aimed at young wives, the spirit of the song is meant to encourage both spouses to continue to be lovers to each other.

“Don’t think that just because there’s a ring on your finger, means you needn’t try anymore”

That equal charge is exactly the sentiment of the film Wives & Lovers starring Janet Leigh and Van Johnson.

Van Johnson plays Bill Austin, a struggling writer who stays at home to work and watch over his 8 year daughter Julie, while Bertie Austin (Leigh) works as a dental assistant. Did I mention this film was set in 1963 yet? The Austin family, struggling in a tiny 87th Street NYC apartment,  is suddenly upgraded to the Connecticut suburbs – complete with the always fantastic Shelley Winters and Ray Walston as neighbors – when Bill’s novel sells, along with the rights for the play and movie.

Although the good life awaits, the pitfalls of the sudden influx of wealth brings all sorts of problems with it. Newly “retired” Bertie is at a loss for what to do with her time now, she can’t even fix dinner for her family because of their new housekeeper. Bill, under pressure to keep up appearances at parties and deliver rewrites of the play version of his book, is rarely home. All this makes their daughter Julie (played by scene stealer Claire Wilcox) yearn for the days when all three were crammed in their little kitchen on 87th street.

wives-and-loversAll of this misplaced attention pounds away at the foundation that keeps a good marriage together. Both Bill and Bertie eventually stray romantically. Bill gets caught up with his lit-agent, Lucinda. Although it’s clear it’s all superficial and not based in real love. Bertie is swept up by Hollywood’s handsome “It Boy”, Gar Aldrich. Both Austins have their doubts about going through with their infidelities, but both realize that neither is willing to fight for the affections of the other. While the men of the film, Bill and Gar, are the pursuers, both women push back only enough to make the pursuit exciting. Their objections are more about what these new men might offer than what effects their actions will have on their relationships.

Now aside from the plot, the script is smartly funny and honest. I’m certain the play it was adapted from served the screenwriters well. The strength of the film comes from the performances.  Even daughter Julie has some excellent moments and her place in the plot isn’t simply for comedy or convenience, she is a wonderful character that adds to the complexity of the family’s struggles. But she also brings with her some laugh out loud character traits.

MV5BMTY1MTUxNTMzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNzUwNjM2._V1_SX640_SY720_The highlight of the all the actor’s chemistry shines during a dinner party and Bill and Bertie’s home. Martha Hyer as Lucinda, shows up to the dinner party wearing a long coat. She’s is encouraged to take her coat off after lingering a little too with it on. I won’t spoil it, but it’s easily now one of my favorite brilliantly funny moments in film and sets up an entertainingly awkward party where jealous heads seemingly prevail. Add to all this the insider jokes on Hollywood culture (Winters plays a divorcee who’s ex is a big time actor and she’s filled with wise ‘ol observations on Hollywood’s upper crust.) and this easily becomes a film that should be lauded for it’s charm and wit.

I could easily see this film remade today, but unfortunately I fear some PC hack would try and progressive-ise it into garbage by inserting some gender role hysteria about how there is no difference in male and female nature – that men and women are the same. Generally speaking, male nature and female nature are not the same. This film is a good example of what society knows to be true but doesn’t want to accept. That men and women can be and are equal, but we are not the same. This should be celebrated.

There are a lot of hot topics that arise today from both the song and film. As someone who enjoys observing our species and a healthy down and dirty debate I look forward to reading your comments.


Matt Edwards

Matt Edwards is a filmmaker in his native Los Angeles. He is an alumnus of the 2011 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop, a 2014 Liberty Lab Fellow and the current editor of SCC. Matt is also host of the The Rear View film podcast. Follow @TRVpodcast and @mattchrised on Twitter.

  • Richard Mattox

    And such a great poster! I’ll have to check this out!

  • penpusher

    Certainly the song “Wives and Lovers” wasn’t directed at both men and women, as the Hal David lyric proves. Maybe you could interpret it that was, partially, but that wasn’t the intention. Clearly the song was a message to those wives to continue to act as if they were still trying to win their husbands, otherwise they would eventually lose them to some “girl at the office.” No amount of spin is going to change that.

    The film itself was about as disappointing as the song. I didn’t find much humor or more importantly, any message even as obvious as the song delivered within the context of the movie. Granted, nobody did a bad job with what they had (and Claire Wilcox may have been the best of the bunch, holding her own with every other cast member). But there wasn’t a lot of material to work with here, even for a pre-Beatles romantic comedy, and it shows.

    I wonder what a “Wives and Lovers” reboot might be? Gender reversal, with the women characters in the lead, and on the prowl? Probably even less meaningful than the original. I think the most pressing question that came from this movie is: did Ray Walston EVER look “young?”