Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). 80 minutes. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Claudette Colbert (as Nicole de Loiselle), Gary Cooper (as Michael Brandon), Edward Everett Horton (as the Marquis de Loiselle), David Niven (as Albert De Regnier), Elizabeth Patterson (as Aunt Hedwige), Herman Bing (as Monsieur Pepinard), Warren Hymer (as Kid Mulligan), and Lawrence Grant (as Professor Urganzeff). Screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.
When director Ernst Lubitsch was at his best, which was often, his witty romantic comedies had no equals. The great Lubitsch movies—such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and To Be or Not to Be (1942)—drip with sparkling repartee, sophistication, and delicious naughtiness (often of a sexual nature) that exemplify Hollywood at its most adult. But the master of subtle innuendo also made some missteps, and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is widely considered to be one of his failures. After watching its trailer, I was prepared for it to be awful, and much of it is, but I ended up enjoying it more than I anticipated. It had enough of the famous “Lubitsch touches” to hold my interest and amuse me, even though I was often disappointed by its crude humor.
The film (which is a remake of a 1923 silent version starring Gloria Swanson) takes place on the French Riviera, where wealthy businessman Michael Brandon has a chance encounter with Nicole de Loiselle in a department store while purchasing pajamas. He is smitten with her, but he is also preoccupied: he has trouble sleeping, so much so that he asks his hotel to assign him a different suite. The hotel offers him the suite of the Marquis de Loiselle who is having financial trouble, and when Michael learns that the Marquis is Nicole’s father, he makes a business deal with him to get in his good graces (this involves purchasing the alleged bathtub of King Louis XIV), then proposes marriage to Nicole. She is thrilled until she learns that Michael has been married seven times before. When Michael announces that each wife signed a prenuptial agreement that paid handsomely when they divorced, she agrees to marry him but only if he will pay double his normal settlement in the event that they separate.
On their honeymoon, Nicole works to bring about their divorce. She withholds physical affection from him, and even though he consults Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for advice on how to deal with difficult women, she firmly refuses his sexual advances. Nicole strives to make Michael jealous by forging love letters to herself and pretending to be in a relationship with a boxer named Kid Mulligan. Finally Michael divorces her, she receives her settlement, and he has a nervous breakdown. Nicole visits him in the sanitarium and tells him that she put him through this ordeal to prove she did not need his money and to break him of his habit of serial marriage. When she reveals that she has loved him from the beginning, the two are reconciled.
One thing I can say for Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is that when it is bad, it is not mediocre. Its badness is more impressive than the word “mediocre” implies. Its most over-the-top moments involve piling brutal behavior on top of brutal behavior. This ranges from actual physical violence (Michael slapping Nicole, Nicole slapping Michael, Michael smashing a vase, Michael spanking Nicole, Kid Mulligan punching out Nicole’s friend Albert, Michael choking or threatening to choke Nicole or threatening other physical violence) or other offensive behavior (Nicole eating a bunch of scallions and kissing Michael, knowing that he abhors them). Michael is even pounced upon by asylum attendants and forced into a straitjacket towards the movie’s conclusion. Naturally, he tries to attack Nicole when she visits him but cannot because of the jacket—this is supposed to make us laugh.
Part of the movie’s problem apart from its physical crudeness is the logic of the story overall. Nicole marries Michael for his wealth so she can divorce him, receive her settlement, and remarry him to prove she does not need him for his money—but of course, this is so convoluted that as a strategy, it can only seem absurd. Decisions that affect the course of their lives are made rapidly and without a great deal of thought: he proposes right after meeting her, and when she learns he has had seven other wives, she rejects him but is quickly convinced again to marry him after he affixes a price tag to their prenuptial agreement. We are meant to accept in the end that Nicole really has good motives all along, but this is rather difficult, as we are not clued in to her intentions until the final scene. And it is hard to understand why it is necessary to put Michael in an asylum, in a straitjacket no less, and show him mumbling to himself. Do we really need to see him reduced to muttering insanity to decide that the film is funny?
Then there is the oblique but strongly implied idea that Nicole is withholding sex from Michael to further her financial goals. Sex, or lack of sex, is a tool in this movie, not a source of romance or a provocation for the clever banter or amusing repartee we might expect from Lubitsch or screenwriters Brackett and Wilder. The letters that Nicole sends anonymously to Michael that detail her fictional adultery also seem like a missed opportunity for Lubitschean marital advice: whereas in other Lubitsch movies, adultery is used as a kind of subversive cure-all for troubled relationships, here it simply helps to end Nicole and Michael’s marriage.
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife attempts to locate some of its abusive mannerisms in a classic text: Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Michael reads this book from cover to cover and immediately proceeds to charge down a hallway, break a vase, and slap Nicole. But those who are acquainted with Shakespeare’s play will recall that its protagonist Petruchio does not use physical abuse to control his shrewish wife Katherina; instead he wears her down psychologically, often with crazed kindness. (It is hard to imagine that Michael has read the text with thought or care, but I suppose that is part of the joke.) Moreover, the shots of Michael reading the play prompt us to wonder: is Nicole really a shrew? She will not sleep with her husband, but otherwise she behaves charmingly towards him. They have some pleasant exchanges while she is cohabitating with him, and they seem to enjoy each other’s company.
I suppose it does not matter. When he reads lofty Shakespeare and comes up with a slap-happy solution, the desired effect is laughter rather than thought, which is a sad state of affairs for a Lubitsch film or for any story that invokes Shakespeare’s rich body of work. But then referring to another famous drama in your movie is always a gamble for at least this reason: seeing Shrew’s title only made me think of how much better Shakespeare’s play is, and with that came the thought of how much better Lubitsch’s other movies are—presumably not the intended consequence.
There are some bright points. For example, in the initial sequence Michael goes to a French department store searching for a pajama top without the bottom, and he meets Nicole who is looking for a pair of men’s pajama bottoms without the top. When they find each other and realize they can get what they want if they split a striped set, the minor issue of what they are buying to sleep in dictates their sexual destiny. With true Lubitsch edginess, the new couple’s intimate practices (or what we think are their intimate practices) materialize in public before they are even dating. When the shop manager appeals up the chain of command for permission to sell a man only a pajama top, he reaches the head of the corporation, who emerges from bed wearing no pajama bottoms—suggesting widespread bedroom-related idiosyncrasy. Even better still is the scene where we see the Marquis wearing the bottoms that his daughter Nicole has purchased (for him, as it turns out). As soon as he clarifies that they come from his daughter and that Nicole is his daughter, any naughty thoughts that we might have about Nicole, or about the Marquis and Nicole, are quashed. Nonetheless, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife enjoys teasing us with sexual possibilities.
That is the charm of those earlier scenes—the innuendo common to Lubitsch movies is alive and well in them. At the same time, a sense of European elegance that feels very Lubitschean pervades the refined department store setting. It is easy to feel encouraged and hopeful that there will be more to like. A running joke keeps the plot running merrily along: Nicole recommends that the insomniac Michael spell “Czechoslovakia” backwards to fall asleep according to a famous doctor’s technique. The Czechoslovakia joke recurs when Michael insists that he and Nicole honeymoon there in gratitude for the way they met, and later when Michael is confined to the asylum, we learn that the doctor who originated the Czechoslovakia sleep trick runs the place. The joke thus neatly punctuates the movie’s three phases—not a bad structural device.
It is when Michael begins to woo Nicole more aggressively that things begin to feel shaky, including a scene on the beach, awkwardly staged, where Michael lies in the sand in full business suit, flirts with Nicole, and upbraids her friend Albert, who is also there and who it turns out is an employee of Michael’s. The intimidated Albert inanely runs back and forth from Nicole to Michael as he chats with each in private asides, and Michael begins shouting unnecessarily. The scene relies on coarseness and mean-spiritedness to get laughs, and it also gives us an early taste of how Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife will use ludicrous behavior to advance its story.
The movie’s better moments are thus at odds with the brutal, headache-inducing landscape that the rest of the story comes to inhabit and that is a chief feature of bad screwball comedies. I should note that I actually like some screwball comedies; for example, I genuinely enjoy the frenetic Bringing Up Baby (1938), a movie that similarly pits the sexes against each other but that by comparison does it with love and affection coupled with copious amounts of exasperation, but not with physical violence and not with heavy doses of implausibility. It demonstrates that screwball comedies can be boisterous but also highly amusing. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is in contrast an example of how easy it is to falter within this sub-genre of romantic comedy.
Film historian Joseph McBride argues in his recent book How Did Lubitsch Do It? (2018) that Lubitsch was inherently ill-suited to the screwball genre due to his sensitivity, especially towards female characters. But McBride does not recommend avoiding Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife because its subject matter and style did not suit the director. Rather, he maintains that from studying Lubitsch’s failures—which also include The Man I Killed (1932) and That Lady in Ermine (1948)—we can develop a deeper understanding of what makes Lubitsch Lubitsch. I have to admit that even though I cringed through much of the movie, I enjoyed recognizing some of Lubitsch’s finer qualities (including his characteristic elegance and intelligence) in rare moments. But the film’s wild failures were also bizarrely stimulating—everything from the sheer badness of much of the action to the story’s often staggering lack of subtlety. That is to say that Lubitsch fails at screwball comedy in a way that is uniquely his own, and even this bad Lubitsch movie is still like no one else’s. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is worth seeing as one of the great director’s rare missteps.