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The Skipper Surprised His Wife

The Skipper Surprised His Wife(1950)

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teaser The Skipper Surprised His Wife (1950)

MGM's executives never saw more in Robert Walker than just another boy-next-door type. To them, he was pretty much interchangeable with other contract players like Tom Drake and Van Johnson, though he regularly brought more sensitivity to those roles than most of his contemporaries. This pleasant 1950 family comedy puts no great strain on his acting abilities and provides a pleasant way of passing time. With his casting as a father with two small sons, it also suggests that the actor, just into his 30s, was moving into more mature leading roles. But the film seems an anomaly considering that a year later he would star as Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train (1951), one of the most complex and fascinating villains in all of Alfred Hitchcock's films.

By 1950, Walker's off-screen life was pretty complex in its own right. While playing all-American boys in Bataan (1943), the first film under his MGM contract, See Here, Private Hargrove (1944) and The Clock (1945), his personal life was falling apart. His wife, Jennifer Jones, was under contract to independent producer David O. Selznick, who was clearly smitten with the young woman. Her growing feelings for Selznick ended her marriage, and Walker turned to drink for consolation. After a DUI arrest, MGM production chief Dore Schary had him admitted to the Menninger Clinic. When he got out, the studio assigned him a pair of light comedies, Please Believe Me (1950), with Deborah Kerr, and this film.

The Skipper Surprised His Wife started life as a series of magazine articles by Naval officer W.J. Lederer in This Week Magazine. In them, he recounted his personal experiences when he had to take over housekeeping after his wife broke her ankle. At first he struggled to establish a routine, but then tried applying military regimentation to his chores, turning his household into a well-oiled machine. MGM purchased the film rights in 1948, intending the story as a vehicle for Van Heflin. By the time they got it into production, however, Heflin had left the studio. Originally, Vincente Minnelli was attached to direct, but he was reassigned to Father of the Bride (1950). In his place they turned to writer-director-actor Elliott Nugent, who had scored hits at Paramount directing such Bob Hope vehicles as The Cat and the Canary (1939), Nothing But the TruthMy Favorite Brunette (1947). He had also directed Danny Kaye's debut feature, Up in Arms (1944) and the film version of his and James Thurber's stage hit, The Male Animal (1942).

Betty Garrett was originally cast as Daphne, but had to withdraw when she discovered she was pregnant. The studio tested Sally Forrest and Diana Lynn for the role before choosing Joan Leslie, who had only made two films for B studio Eagle-Lion since ending her Warner Bros. contract in 1946. To fill out the cast, they drew on contract players Edward Arnold and Leon Ames and signed on Spring Byington as an admiral's wife and Jan Sterling as a beautiful neighbor who rouses Leslie's jealousy.

MGM sold the film as a light-hearted romp, with footage of Walker in an apron trying to do housework. Any indication that the film would provide a refreshing take on traditional gender roles, however, is quickly wiped out by its basic premise, that a man can run a household better than a woman by applying the principles of men's work to the task. Though the trailer features the tagline "Together they discover that marriage is fine...fun...and 50-50," the film puts much more emphasis on masculine superiority. Referencing the plot catalyst, the wife's broken ankle, the trailer jokes "Rather than shoot her, the skipper himself turned to the task of homemaking and housewifing." Then it brags that "...with Navy planning and typical masculine superiority, he proved that any reasonably intelligent man can become not only master, but mistress of his house as well." The film's branding is borne out by Dorothy Kingsley's script. After Walker discovers the secret to efficient housekeeping, he goes on a speaking tour, during which he claims that "The average housewife is either a soap opera addict, a fence-hanger, a salesman-encourager, a book-of-the-monther or just plain lazy." All of that might be a little hard to swallow for contemporary audiences, though it certainly provides a fascinating window on the extent to which Hollywood helped promote traditional gender roles during the studio era.

Telling audiences what they were told to believe, however, was not enough to get audiences into theatres as post-war couples were settling in to raise children and watch television. Nugent completed the film on a $753,000 budget, but it brought in just $733,000 domestically and $193,000 overseas. Because of the cost of prints and advertising, the film posted a loss of $181,000. Nonetheless, it gives Walker a chance to show how effortlessly he could pull off such light fare, which makes his early death two years later all the more poignant.

Director: Elliott Nugent
Producer: William H. Wright
Screenplay: Dorothy Kingsley
Based on the magazine article by Cmdr. W.J. Lederer, U.S.N.Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Score: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Robert Walker (Cmdr. William J. Lattimer), Joan Leslie (Daphne Lattimer), Edward Arnold (Adm. Homer Thorndyke), Spring Byington (Agnes Thorndyke), Leon Ames (Dr. Philip Abbott), Jan Sterling (Rita Rossini), Mae Clarke (Clubwoman), Irene Ryan (Mrs. O'Rourke)

By Frank Miller

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