Our “feature” last night was Borrowed Wives, a 1930 film from Tiffany that I had originally thought would be a romantic melodrama with envelope-pushing “pre-Code” kinkiness, something on the order of Expensive Husbands. Instead — as the bouncy stock music over the opening credits (instead of the dire stock music I’d been expecting) made clear even before the film began — it was a comedy, and it began with what was by far its best scene. We see a huge billboard announcing that visitors are arriving in Monterey, listing the fruits and vegetables the area is famous for (including the casaba), and announcing that visitors are welcome. Behind the billboard we see two motorcycle cops, Bull Morgan (Paul Hurst) and Mac (Tom London), lamenting that they haven’t seen any people driving through the area above the speed limit lately. Then a man in a nice car zips through and Mac gives chase, and afterwards another man in a nice car zips through and Bull gives chase.
It turns out they’re both racing to a nearby airport to meet their fiancées and marry them — and it also turns out, this being at least an attempt at a romantic farce, that they’re both hurrying along to meet the same woman, Alice Blake (Vera Reynolds). The first man, who disappears from the action after the opening scene, gets read the riot act by the fiercely misogynistic Mac, who says he should be glad he’s going to arrest him and thereby keep him from getting married. The second man is Peter Foley (Rex Lease, top-billed, a “B”-lister in the silent era who became a “C”-lister when sound came in), who has to marry that day so his wife can inherit his family’s fortune; otherwise his uncle Henry (Charles Sellon) gets it. He is, or at least seems to be, genuinely in love with Alice, but when he meets her at the airport and she turns him down, he looks for someone else he can marry, or at least pose as being married to, on the spot so he can have a “wife” by midnight and grab the fortune. His friend Joe Blair (Robert Randall, later known as Robert Livingston) has the answer: Blair is an executive in love with his secretary, Julia Thorpe (Nita Martan) — though Julia is also Bull Morgan’s girlfriend and the cop is so jealous he’s threatened to beat up any other man who shows interest in her — and they hatch a scheme to go to Uncle Henry’s home and claim that Julia is his wife.
About 20 minutes into the film, its action moves to Henry’s old dark house, full of the expected secret passages — including a room where Henry keeps a pet panther (at least that’s what it’s called in the synopsis; it was some sort of big cat but I couldn’t tell it was a panther just by looking at it in the film). Henry is in a wheelchair, though to no one’s particular surprise (no one in the audience, that is) he doesn’t really need it: I think there were far more able-bodied people posing as cripples in 1930’s movies than there were people who appeared in wheelchairs because their characters actually needed them (a taboo that got broken only when Lionel Barrymore became so disabled by his crippling arthritis he really needed a wheelchair, so MGM had to come up with parts for him he could play from a chair — he had just been scheduled to play Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, a part he’d become identified with on radio, when he lost his ability to walk and had to give up the part; Reginald Owen stepped in at the last minute, though Barrymore still appeared — as himself — in the trailer!).
Anyway, after about a long, dreary half-hour in which everybody congregates at the old dark house — including Bull Morgan and a minister or something (at least someone with the legal authority to marry people; I think he was supposed to be the lawyer or judge with the power to settle the estate Peter’s wife is supposed to inherit), as well as Alice, who’s thought better of her rejection of Peter’s proposal — Julia is kidnapped. Peter reveals the two weren’t really married so he can get the officiant to marry him and Alice, so he can get the inheritance and also the woman he really wants, and then Alice is kidnapped — and in yet another plot twist script compiler Scott Darling (who later wrote the Mr. Wong series films for Boris Karloff at Monogram; I say “compiler” because he seems merely to have assembled this script from old movie clichés and it’s therefore hard to refer to him as a “writer”!) obviously thought would be far more surprising to the audience than it is (or probably was even to a 1930 audience!), the culprit turns out to be Uncle Henry. Well, he is the one with the motive — if Peter doesn’t have a wife, authentic or otherwise, by midnight he gets the inheritance, so it’s in his interest to spirit away any woman Peter might be, or want to be, married to so she can’t get the money and therefore it devolves to him.
Borrowed Wives is the sort of movie that seems to last even longer than it actually does (imdb.com doesn’t give a running time and the download from archive.org we were watching timed out at 62 minutes) and it evokes all too many memories of the genuinely good, imaginative movies it ripped off, not only The Old Dark House but Buster Keaton’s comedy masterpiece, Seven Chances — just as I once joked that at the top level of quality of movies set in the central California missions there was Vertigo and at the bottom level there was Incubus, so at the top of movies with the central premise that a young man has to marry within the day to receive an inheritance there is Seven Chances and at the bottom there’s Borrowed Wives. The director was Frank R. Strayer, who in the early 1930’s had a quirky career at the various independent studios that generated quite a few watchable movies and two minor gems in the horror genre, The Vampire Bat (1933) and Condemned to Live (1935), before he signed with Columbia and settled down to a long career helming the Blondie series — a real pity; it undoubtedly made him a decent living but it steered him away from the Gothic atmospherics that were his greatest strength as a director, and which give some interest even to something as tacky and silly as Borrowed Wives.