Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Lupino & Fontaine Fall for THE BIGAMIST

A hundred years ago this week, a miracle happened!!

On September 10, 1915, Edmond O’Brien was born…

In 1953’s The Bigamist, he scrambles up and down the California coast, shuttling between two wives. If I’d been anywhere in the vicinity, it would have been three.

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Ida Lupino, who also directed, plays Phyllis, an L.A. restaurant hostess and the more sympathetic of the two wives. And that was my main gripe: not that she took the plummier role (why wouldn’t she?), but that her rival (Joan Fontaine) was subtly frowned upon for being a—gasp!—business woman, and a damned good one. So, of course her husband became a bigamist! He was lonely and emasculated and blah, blah, blah… Really, Ida? You, of all people, ran with that tired old trope?

Here’s the thing, though: in other ways, the movie is pretty subversive, especially for a noir. O’Brien, unlikely as it may seem (except for those of us who adore him), is kind of an homme fatale—unable to get control of his emotions and his life, he ends up making two kind, trusting women absolutely miserable. He’s the irrational, random force that wreaks havoc on their otherwise sane, centered lives. They know what they want and where they’re going (at least until they learn the truth), but he’s a freaking wreck. Throw in the fact that he’s being stalked by Santa Claus—Edmund Gwenn plays an adoption agency investigator looking into his domestic life—and you’ve pretty much stood the movie world as we know it on its head.

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With this film, Lupino became the first woman in the modern era to direct herself in a major film. She used separate camera crews and a variety of lenses for each wife, to highlight their differences and heighten the feeling of intimacy the audience had with each of them. Lupino said directing herself was the biggest challenge: “It was difficult for me to determine the quality of my performance, so I relied on Collie… who would signal to me when I was doing something I would not like.”

“Collie” was Lupino’s ex-husband Collier Young, who wrote the screenplay and remained her partner in their production company, Filmakers (yes, with one “m”). Oh, and they cast his new wife, Fontaine, in the film, also throwing in a cameo for his mother-in-law. Some couples carry the idea of amicable divorce a little too far…

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A few more tidbits before I  turn you over to the movie: The Bigamist was one of the first films to use product placement; the shoestring budget was bolstered by fees from Cadillac, Coca-Cola and United Airlines. And the scene with the tour of the movie stars’ homes? Those were their actual homes. There’s also a little inside joke in that scene, but I won’t give it away…

And now, enjoy! (For other Streaming Saturday movies, just click here! And why not bookmark the link so you never miss a week?)

3 Comments

  1. Great write-up of this strange, unique film. I share your well-articulated feelings about both the sexist and the progressive elements of the film, and I love the backstory details. While I enjoy The Hitch-hiker more, The Biganist is more important to film history, don’t you think?

  2. Reblogged this on BNoirDetour and commented:
    Wonderful write-up of The Bigamist.

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