The Film and Performance:
A satirical film is more difficult than one may initially deem. In order to properly manipulate a circumstance or social situation, the event must be embellished enough that it fringes on lunacy, yet there is still enough realism that the film maintains its believability. For instance, Dr. Strangelove exaggerated the bureaucratic tendencies of the American government, which evoked the numerous laughs from the film. However, the real threat of nuclear annihilation within the film’s plot maintained the edge of realism that audiences, and the characters within the film, were aware of. There is a proper balance that must be applied to a satirical film and if the film slants more in one direction, not only is the comedic purpose of the film gone, but it could utterly change the audience-to-film experience. Unfortunately that is what occurred with How to Murder Your Wife.
How to Murder Your Wife is a satire about marriage in the 1960s, which emphasizes the constraints and limitations of the male species once they are supposedly trapped in marriage. While the film aims to be humorous, it instead becomes a harsh representation of women that portrays them as nagging, controlling, paranoid individuals. When looking at this film from a contemporary light, it is common knowledge today that marriage was the opposite: Women being relegated to the roles of mothers and housekeepers while the men maintained their philandering lives. Of course, there are many exceptions to this marriage perception of the 1960s, and perhaps the film didn’t aim to represent marriage and women as such, but it does. The flaw with the satire is that the film lacks any individual who truly lavishes and worships marriage. Yes, there are characters who claim they love marriage within the film, yet it is revealed by the end of the film that they all, unanimously, cannot stand their wives and marriage. In fact, the film represents men as being emasculated due to marriage and lacking any control. The issue with the film is that it fails to apply genuine satire to this argument and instead conveys this message matter-of-factly. Therefore, the film is not funny. Even worse when viewing it from a contemporary standpoint, this film becomes offensive due to its representation of women.
The plot of the film is simple: Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a bachelor, who enjoys a carefree life of being a playboy. He is quirky and enjoys roleplaying the adventures that his comic strip character, Bash Brannigan, will ultimately do in the next comic he is set to draw. This all changes on one drunken night when he accidentally marries the woman who pops out of a cake during a bachelor party. He awakens the next morning to not only realize he is married to her, but she also speaks nothing but Italian. Once he realizes he cannot escape this marriage (annulment and divorce are quickly discussed, but ultimately cast aside immediately), the film delves into how he must adapt to married life and how his wife, who is constantly kissing him and cooking him heavy food (a stereotyped Italian woman representation). Eventually, out of a moment of frustration, Stanley draws “how to murder your wife” in his comic strip, which his wife sees, and promptly leaves. Of course, her disappearance leads everyone to believe Stanley actually murdered her, causing him to be arrested, and having to defend himself, which he ultimately does by appealing to the jury’s emasculation by women.
It is evident that How to Murder Your Wife was aimed to be a hysterical comedy, but overreached in its ambitions. The vast majority of the film’s jokes fall flat and not a single character has enough depth to care about their plight. The film represents all characters as selfish and at odds with each other, except Virna Lisi as Stanley’s wife. It is also important to note that the film not only provides a poor representation of women, but also spells out to women ‘how to be a proper wife’ through Lisi’s character. Her character always has the meals ready, is at the disposal of her husband to do whatever he wants, his needs are her needs, she is concerned for him over herself, and she lavishes him with love at every given second. Her character is never even given a name, which emphasizes how minimized she is. Lisi’s character is solely known as “Mrs. Ford,” further emphasizing her identity is that of her husband’s, not her own. While How to Murder Your Wife may have been trying to portray her as the ‘the dream wife that Stanley doesn’t appreciate,’ it instead comes off as a blueprint to women on how to treat their husband.
What could have saved this film from being a blatant vilification of women would have been its acting, which sometimes has the ability to rise above a substandard script. Unfortunately, the acting equals the poor quality of the script, which lowered the film even more. Virna Lisi’s character is given no range other than the excited wife who wants to be domesticated. Even worse is the performance offered by Eddie Mayehoff, who stars as Stanley’s best friend and lawyer. Mayehoff’s character is meant to be the comedy powerhouse of the film, but instead, his acting is so cringeworthy that one is inadvertently rooting for his wife, whose performance by Claire Trevor is equally obnoxious. Nonetheless, Mayehoff’s performance is so devastatingly bad that any possibly of humor that could have been applied to this film was thereby tarnished. In fact, the only real humor that comes from this film is Terry-Thomas as Stanley’s misogynous butler. Thomas’ character’s horror that his employer is now married evokes some initial laughs and Thomas, being the talented British comedian that he was, was able to do it with comedic ease. However, the film barely utilized his talent and when the character exits the film suddenly, the minimal laughs the film had went with him.
This leads to Jack Lemmon’s own performance. A film that wants to satirize marriage must have a protagonist that the audience, both male and female, can appreciate. While Jack Lemmon is an endearing actor, his character fails to provide any heart to the film. Lemmon’s performance desperately needed a supporting cast that would aid in his character providing laughs. As a result of a floundering cast, Lemmon’s own performance sinks to the abyss. This is because Jack Lemmon’s typical comedy style is to ‘play it straight’ among zany characters who surround him, thus causing him to react. Since the supporting cast failed to carry their own weight, Lemmon’s character is seen by audiences matter-of-factly, thus having the opposite intention the performance was supposed to convey.
Jack Lemmon’s Stanley Ford was aimed to be endearing and comical, yet he comes off as petulant and selfish. Another issue with the performance is that it was supposed to conform to a contradictory script. The script has Stanley’s life uprooted due to being married, enduring a married life he doesn’t enjoy, drawing the murder of his wife on his comic strip, defending his honor as a male by telling his male jurors to stop giving women power, yet the film ends with Stanley being happy that his wife has come back home, thus indicating that marriage is good and he readily embraces it. The failed attempt at satire made the film’s plot severely disjointed, which made Jack Lemmon’s own performance appear flustered and without any real humanity for the audience to appreciate or associate with. However, it goes to say that Jack Lemmon didn’t necessarily offer a poor performance, but the film’s failures lowered what potential it could have had if it had been successful in its intentionality.