Director: Ida Lupino. Screenplay: Collier Young. Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn, Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell. Drama / United States / 80′.
Ida Lupino directs and stars in this final feature for her production company The Filmakers before moving into television.
The blunt title serves as a massive spoiler from the word Go. There’s no doubt as to where the plot is going, but strange as it may seem today, bigamy was surprisingly common at the time, as this film is at pains to point out.
A British film called The Bigamist had been made as early as 1916; but during the 195os the subject was usually treated light-heartedly as a subject of comedy (as in the same year’s The Captain’s Paradise, with Alec Guinness, Celia Johnson and Yvonne de Carlo). But when children are involved – as is the case here – it really becomes significant; and bigamy is just one of a whole raft of issues – including unplanned pregnancy and adoption (where do most adopted children come from in the first place?) – the film explores in just eighty minutes.
With so many people raising kids these days without bothering to get married, the mores of this era seem rather quaint and as remote as the silent era. The earnest tone of the film rather recalls the silent ‘social problem’ films of pioneer women directors Lois Weber and Mrs Wallace Reid in whose footsteps Lupino was following.
The Bigamist is rather like a silent film in the way Lupino’s pregnancy is implied to be the result of the sole occasion she had slept with her lover (O’Brien) as a “birthday treat” for him. And she becomes pregnant the very first time she had slept with a man since she got a ‘Dear Phyllis’ letter from a previous boyfriend several years earlier. O’Brien never squares with her that he’s married; but the thought must have crossed her mind.
It was brave of Edmond O’Brien to take on such an unheroic role, and interesting that Lupino chose to cast herself as the Other Woman rather than the wife. Under any other circumstances it would have been refreshing to see Joan Fontaine as the wife so confidently holding forth on technical matters at the dinner table were she not shown immediately afterwards to be neglecting O’Brien’s need for physical intimacy by immediately turning her back on him in bed (they sleep in separate beds and have been unable to have children).
Could there have been some way of engineering a happy resolution by having O’Brien present Lupino’s child to Fontaine to raise as their own? Perhaps. But Lupino probably wasn’t seeking a tidy resolution, and instead it all ends messily in court with O’Brien getting his knuckles sternly but regretfully rapped by a judge. Richard Chatten.
THE BIGAMIST IS now SCREENING ON MUBI