In Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday (2006), Arthur (Eli Wallach), an elderly screenwriter who peaked during Hollywood's Golden Era, describes a meet-cute by paraphrasing the opening of Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. That 1938 feature was regarded as a semi-lost romantic-comedy gem at the time — Lubitsch’s feature didn’t arrive on home video until 2009, three years after The Holiday debuted — and Meyers was paying homage to the forefathers of the genre with this lighthearted aside. Unfortunately, this relic of the late ’30s still remains generally unknown. With their newly released Blu-ray restoration, Kino Lorber Studio Classics recognizes the importance of this foundational screwball comedy and gives it the canonization it deserves.
The opening sequence — the one lifted, reworded, and relayed to Kate Winslet in Meyers’ transatlantic Christmas movie — sees American multi-millionaire Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) in pursuit of pajamas. Just the tops, as a matter of fact — he doesn’t wear pajama pants and he doesn’t buy anything he doesn’t need. This oddly specific order proves incredibly confounding for the salesmen, who claim they’ve never had someone refuse to pay for the set. Just as the dispute is about to come to blows, Nicole De Loiselle (Claudette Colbert) arrives in search of pajama bottoms for her father. It’s a match made in heaven — if heaven can be considered a posh department store, which, to a wealthy businessman like Brandon, it very well could be.
Helplessly intrigued by each other’s equally precise orders, the two engage in a day’s worth of playful exchanges against the backdrop of the French Riviera, where they presently reside. Before long, it’s clear that Brandon is so well off that he’s able to capitalize on just about anything, while Nicole is so strapped for cash that she’s capable of grifting anyone dumb enough to fall for her. This realization surfaces when her father (Edward Everett Horton) attempts to pawn off the alleged bathtub of King Louis XIV to Brandon. Although it’s the first clue that these characters are similarly desperate despite being on polar opposite sides of the economic spectrum, it’s also the foremost indication that these individuals are the embodiment of the famed French folktale of “Bluebeard,” immortalized by Charles Perrault in his 1697 written version.
Though many different iterations of the story exist, the most common version tells of a wealthy man who has been married countless times, with each wife mysteriously dying. When Bluebeard asks for his neighbor’s daughter’s hand in marriage, the family is justifiably terrified for her fate. As the story goes, the infamous womanizer’s latest bride refuses to follow in the footsteps of those who came before her. In Lubtisch’s feature, Brandon’s proposal to Nicole is decidedly less horrific than this. Instead, the filmmaker saves the drama for the actual wedding day. As her husband-to-be yanks his handkerchief out of his jacket, rice flies everywhere. When Nicole asks why, he simply tells her it’s left over from the last wedding. Further interrogation reveals that she’ll be the eighth, with the previous seven all receiving $50,000 a year in alimony (each!) thanks to prenuptial agreements.
Unsurprisingly, Nicole demands twice what the other brides receive and — on Brandon’s agreement to her terms — immediately starts acting up. The sooner she can secure the funds, the better. At first, this abrupt shift feels a bit shaky. After spending the first half of the film observing these two desperate people fall in love (or lust, rather) for all the wrong reasons, the film suddenly places them at odds with one another. Instead of the beautiful locales of the French Riviera, the couple is holed up in separate rooms of their Paris residence. Where’s the fun in that? Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the audience to get in on the joke. As screwball-romance scenarios go, this one is downright delightful, as Nicole’s efforts to keep Brandon away clash with his determination to make things work.
Although they’d already been working together for a couple of years prior, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife was the first Charles Brackett-Billy Wilder project to be turned into a feature film. (Theirs was a collaborative relationship that would last 13 films, ultimately collapsing in the wake of 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, almost 15 years later.) The pair’s various failed scripts leading up to the production of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife might have seemed like a waste of time to them at the time, but the period between their initial meeting in 1936 and the filming of their first screenplay in 1938 was more important than they may have realized. Their witty, drier-than-a-desert dialogue and madcap plotting paired with the inimitable direction of Ernst Lubitsch results in a film that feels less like a first outing and more like the type of efficient output audiences would expect from a set of seasoned creatives. It’s clever, it’s slick, and it’s a real success.
Even with its winning script and peerless direction, a common complaint directed toward Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is the casting of Gary Cooper in the lead. Compared to the unrivaled charm of Claudette Colbert as the leading lady, it’s not hard for some to question Cooper’s worth opposite her. Truthfully, though, this seems to be a misunderstanding of the dynamic rather than a failure on the part of the film. Both Cooper and Colbert had worked with Lubitsch before: the former in If I Had a Million (1932) and Design for Living (1933) and the latter in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). There’s no doubt that Lubitsch knew exactly what he was doing behind the camera and with their respective castings. Cooper and Colbert’s incompatibility as a couple is not a bug, but a feature. Indeed, it’s the film’s foundational joke. Michael Brandon is a terrible husband with immense wealth and Nicole De Loiselle is a con artist who will do or say anything to get rich quick. The two couldn’t have been played better by anyone else.
It might not be as unimpeachable as Colbert’s It Happened One Night (1934), Cooper’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), or Brackett and Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, but there’s an indisputable, winning charm to Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. As an Old Hollywood loyalist herself, it’s not shocking that Nancy Meyers would include an allusion to the film in one of her modern classics. Her updated versions of Father of the Bride (1950) and The Parent Trap (1961) show an acknowledgment of the time period, but her establishment of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife’s opening sequence as the very definition of the meet-cute demonstrates a true appreciation for the pillars of the romantic-comedy genre. The same goes for Kino Lorber’s update of this essential work. The label’s designation of the film as a “Studio Classic” — no matter how slight it may seem — is well deserved and long overdue.
Further Viewing: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Baby Face (1933), Design for Living (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), The Awful Truth (1937), Christmas in July (1940), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942).
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.