Ernst Lubitsch’s 1938 comedy “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” starring Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (later producer and director, respectively). Well, maybe not a beautiful relationship, but certainly a very productive one, and one for which classic film fans, and writers of any stripe, are (or should be) eternally grateful.
“Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” was the first collaboration between the pair who wrote “Midnight” (1939, another film starring Colbert), “Nintochka,” (1939, another Lubtisch production), “Ball of Fire,” (1941, also starring Cooper), “The Lost Weekend,” (1945), and ended their working relationship with “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). This first film has all the ingredients of their later films, but they don’t have the recipe quite right yet. Wilder himself allegedly commented, “It was not a very good picture, but it was kind of all right.” But who cares? A lesser Lubitsch written by Brackett and Wilder is still light-years better than…well, anything you’re likely to encounter in the course of an average day.
The Brackett-Wilder combo have all the parts of a perfect screwball comedy in “Bluebeard”—formal wear, cocktails, witty wordplay, and a married couple slapping, spanking, and biting each other. Nicole De Loisel (Colbert), daughter of Edward Everett Horton’s penniless Marquis, and Michael Brandon (Cooper), capitalist extraordinaire, are meant to be together, like all screwball couples. And like the couples in “The Awful Truth” (1937), “The Palm Beach Story” (1942, another Colbert picture), and “His Girl Friday” (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Brandon are already married for much of the film, during which time at least one of them is trying to obtain a divorce.
Unlike the couples in “The Awful Truth” and “His Girl Friday,” however, the Brandons are not an evenly matched couple. Nicole has the upper hand here, as Colbert’s Gerry does with her hapless inventor-husband in “Palm Beach.” “Bluebeard’s” Michael may be a millionaire investor and a big shot, but—despite seven previous marriages—he doesn’t know much about women. He is about to get an education.
The setups are fantastic even if not all of them pay off the way they should. The meet-cute at the beginning is classic Wilder and works like a dream. A 1948 New York Times profile of the writing team mentions its origin:
They were trying to bring together the boy and girl involved in “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.” Wilder suggested they meet in a department store.
“The boy is buying pajamas,” Wilder continued, “but he sleeps only in the top. The clerk is sorry, he cannot sell only the top. It looks like a catastrophe. Then the girl comes into the store. She buys only the pants because she sleeps only in the pants.”
Brackett and Lubitsch were entranced, it was not until weeks later that they learned Wilder was a tops-only sleeper and had been awaiting a chance to use the idea.
The film is filled with exchanges and business deals, starting with this first pajama-buying arrangement, a deal which also allows for lots of naughty speculation about whom the bottoms are for, exactly. To lower the price on the bottoms, Nicole throws in a tip to help Michael, an insomniac, fall asleep: spell Czechoslovakia backwards. Nicole may turn out to have a better head for business than her multi-millionaire husband-to-be.
On the verge of marriage, Nicole discovers that Michael has seven previous wives. She is shocked but is quite rightly less disturbed by the fact that he’s been married before than by the fact that he seems to go through women like hankies he hasn’t even bothered to monogram. Michael believes in acting on impulse—he doesn’t want to get to know her better before taking the big leap (which apparently isn’t much of a leap for him). Marriage, like business, is a gambling proposition for him.
Nicole has no reason to suspect that her fate will be any different than Michael’s previous conquests. She agrees to marry him anyway, provided that he will pay her $100,000 a year in alimony if they get divorced. And she spends the rest of the film working diligently to goad him into one.
Shortly after their disastrous honeymoon (to Czechoslovakia, naturally), Michael is told by his doctor to buy some books to help quiet his nerves. (“Oh, what you want is the classics,” the bookseller informs him.) Running into Nicole in the bookshop, he says, “You know, if you’d be a little nicer to me, I wouldn’t have to buy all these books. What do you say?” Thoroughly unimpressed with this ham-fisted flirting, she suggests that Michael is likely to end up with a library.
Forced into reading by his uncooperative wife, he discovers one of the books he’s brought home is The Taming of the Shrew. Ah-ha! he thinks. And so, to the beat of martial drums, he marches over to his wife’s rooms and slaps her across the face. She slaps him back. He retreats, and consults Shakespeare again. He marches back (drums again), smiles and tickles her under the chin. And then yanks her down over his knees for a good spanking.
Shockingly, neither of these approaches melts Nicole’s heart. He returns to his room, disheveled and bitten. Desperate for the divorce, Nicole hires a boxer to pretend he is having an affair with her. Michael will burst into her room and the boxer will knock him out so there’s no trouble. (Coop was 6’ 3” and apparently ate like three or four horses at every meal.)
Michael will capitulate and give her a divorce, and everyone will live happily ever after. Especially Nicole, who will have the satisfaction of having humiliated Michael.
The film is a showcase of the verbal anarchy of screwball comedies. But “Bluebeard” suffers from leaning too heavily on the wordplay and not finessing the characters quite enough. The quips are flying so fast that it’s never as clear as it needs to be how these two actually fell in love with each other—or what makes Nicole return to Michael after she gets her divorce.
Michael is, well, Gary Cooper, but his character is grumpy and gruff and often condescending to Nicole. When he tries to seduce his wife during a dinner date, Michael plays a goofy tune on the piano, a mischievous gleam in his eye. It’s impossible not to sympathize when Nicole drunkenly exclaims, “Why, Michael, you look so different. You don’t look like a multi-millionaire anymore. You look like a man with a $100,000—or even less!” There’s something almost irresistible about Gary Cooper being a goofball.
Michael kisses his wife, who has, unbeknownst to him, eaten a bunch of raw scallions, later insisting, “I will fight you with every vegetable at my disposal!”
As screwball comedies go, in which the husband (or ex-husband) is often humbled into behaving reasonably, “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” has a pretty biting reconciliation. Michael is completely at Nicole’s mercy—trussed up in a straightjacket, which is where this story has been headed from the first scene.
Nicole exclaims, “Why do you think a woman puts a man into a straitjacket? Because she loves him!”
Michael remains (temporarily) unmoved. “Love! You’re a fine one to be talking about love. You wouldn’t be my wife when you should’ve been. The only kiss I ever got out of that marriage was smothered in onions!”
And you really can’t complain much about a film with such wonderful writing.
It has become clear in the years since that 1948 profile of their collaboration that Brackett and Wilder were not “the Happiest Couple in Hollywood,” as someone suggested way back when. Wilder apparently used to ride Brackett until Brackett began throwing things—heavy things—at Wilder’s head. So the snappy dialogue and (not so) latent violence of the screwball comedy was probably always a good match, not only for their gifts as writers, but their partnership as well.
In lieu of any clips from the film, which I couldn’t find, I present the dialogue of one of the finest scenes. Here, Kid Mulligan (Warren Hymer), the boxer, and Nicole negotiate at some length about precisely how much damage Mulligan will do to the hopefully-enraged Michael.
MULLIGAN: [I’ve been knocked out] plenty. And believe me there’s nothing like it. Aw, what a sensation. Once I hit the canvas with a bang and the next minute there I was in a Japanese garden, with them pink cherry blossoms. Another time I was floating over Constantinople. I tell you, you get to see countries you otherwise couldn’t afford to visit.
NICOLE: It sounds perfectly wonderful!
MULLIGAN: That time I fought Battleship McCarthy, boy, I’ll never forget that second round. Now I ask you Mrs. Brandon, where is there another racket where a man of my weight can feel like a flying fish?
NICOLE: Alright, then do it. —No, don’t do it! It’s too good for him.
MULLIGAN: Aw, come on, Mrs. Bradon, don’t be so hardboiled.
NICOLE: No, no, no, no, no. He doesn’t deserve it! Why should he dream he’s in a Japanese garden? After what he’s done to me? I should pay 5,000 francs so he can feel like a flying fish? Noooo, no. Never.
MULLIGAN: But, Mrs. Brandon, he’s your husband. You must have loved him once.
NICOLE: Let’s not talk about it.
MULLIGAN: Aw, come on, give him a break. Have a heart.