Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Ida Lupino and Joan Fontaine Fall For THE BIGAMIST

Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we embed a free, fun movie for you to watch right here!

In 1953’s The Bigamist, Edmond O’Brien scrambles up and down the California coast, shuttling between two wives. If I’d been anywhere in the vicinity, it would have been three. But enough about my love of Eddie.

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In the film, 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? (And by the way, in real life, the anything but hard-hearted Joan left her entire multi-million-dollar fortune to an animal shelter.)

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. The women 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 — partly, she recalled, to cut down on the budget. 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…

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!

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

1 Comment

  1. I love Edmund OBrien. Such sn incomparable actor. Love him in anything, he always delivers.The problem I had with this one is the attempt to make everybody, including him, well- meaning. But he’s a menace.

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