Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, and Edmond O'Brien in The Bigamist (1953)


(director: Ida Lupino; screenwriters: Collier Young/story by Larry Marcus and Lou Schor; cinematographer: George Diskant; editor: Stanford Tischler; music: Leith Stevens; cast: Joan Fontaine (Eve Graham), Ida Lupino (Phyllis Martin), Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Jordan), Edmond O’Brien (Harry Graham), Kenneth Tobey (Tom Morgan), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Connelley); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Robert Eggenweiler/Collier Young; ; 1953)

“Got trapped in a ridiculous deep-freeze as if trying its best to make the bigamist into an Albert Schweitzer.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Actress turned director Ida Lupino (“Outrage”/”Hard, Fast and Beautiful”/”Never Fear”) helms this ‘woman’s pic,’ an overwrought melodrama that never settles into a good drama. Its main task is seemingly to let everyone know that bigamy exists, after we’re reassured of that fact of life the pic dulls out with nowhere to go but to futilely attempt to humanize the bigamist by telling his side of the story. More interesting than the pic, that despite some Production Code problems was not sexy, was the personal entanglements involved in making the film. Lupino and her second hubby, screenwriter and producer Collier Young, founded their own independent production company called The Filmakers (maybe the reason the company failed was because it was spelled with only one ‘m’) in 1950 so Ida could be one of the few women directors in Hollywood and they would make hard-hitting “social issue” pictures that few studios in Hollywood attempted. But they divorced before the shooting began. Collier married Joan Fontaine, Ida would follow suit and marry Howard Duff. When Jane Greer backed out of playing the role of one of the bigamist’s wives, Collier was able to get his new wife Fontaine to replace her. The film received fair praise from the critics, but failed in the box office (perhaps the bad publicity over their remarriages added to what the public didn’t buy into about the problematic story).

The doughy Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien) is a successful traveling salesman of electrical appliances and owns his own company that’s based in San Francisco; he’s married for the last eight years to Eve (Joan Fontaine), like from Adam and Eve, who is a hard working executive in the firm. The childless couple decide to adopt, and the state’s adoption agency’s investigator, Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn, played Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street), is a dedicated old fuss-pot who thoroughly investigates the couple and when in Los Angeles uncovers that Harry is a bigamist. With that little problem standing in the way of the adoption, Harry in an unapologetic but sympathetic way tells Mr. Jordan how it happened (the film goes into a long flashback). We learn that Harry, a decent guy, was lonely while covering his sales route in Los Angeles. On a Sunday he took a tour bus of the stars and met Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino), an equally lonely former farm-girl working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. They hit it off and he knocks her up, and marries her and she has a son. He still loves his careerist wife and can’t bring himself to ask her for a divorce. It seems each woman can give him something the other can’t. After Mr. Jordan hears how such a seemingly sensible businessman became a bigamist, he can only say “I both despise and pity you, and almost wish you luck.” His rational view is intended to be the way the filmmaker wants us to look at the law breaker–as someone who deserves to be punished, but with mercy.

It was hard to buy into the bigamist and the wives all being such good sorts, in a story that cried out to be sordid but instead got trapped in a ridiculous deep-freeze as if trying its best to make the bigamist into an Albert Schweitzer. What saves it, is that the four leads are superb—each giving a moving and wise performance. They can’t make the drama absorbing, but at least they prevent it from touching the third rail.