Sometimes a knock-off can almost as good as the real thing. Take those fake purses you can get everywhere. Everyone assumes if you are carrying a Louis Vitton bag that it is a fake (unless you are Sarah Palin's seven year old daughter) so you might as well buy the fake. In 1941, that's what Columbia pictures did with You Belong to Me a slight marriage comedy built entirely on the success of The Lady Eve and pumped it out only a few months later. It was an unfortunate fact of history that The Lady Eve was so popular that it was still playing in theaters when this movie came out. Still, The New York Times gave it a decent review because You Belong to Me is actually very funny and well-made. It's like opening up that fake purse and finding that bootleggers have gone to work on the inside too, making the thing work as well as the genuine article.
The story of You Belong to Me revolves around a lady doctor who falls in love with one of her patients. (I guess this is lady doctor week, eh? Stanwyck's Dr. Helen Hunt is another clothes horse lady doctor, a chip off Mary Stevens block.) The initial conceit of Fonda pretending to be sicker than he really is, gets old pretty fast. All great comedies know when to retire a joke and move on to the next as this one does. The movie really gets going in the second act after the wedding when Fonda becomes insanely jealous of Stanwyck's male patients. In his defense they are all ludicrously good-looking and have names like "Oily" and "Van."
It all winds up in a glorious mess with Fonda bursting into a party in a hat with branches coming out both sides, like antlers. I won't bother to take you through the succession of improbable misunderstandings that got us to such a gloriously wacky moment, but it's nice to know that such a moment exists. Fonda plays it to the hilt and Stanwyck plays it with a real, cool anger. On the car ride home she says in a her best Double Indemnity voice, "take those antlers off before someone takes a shot at ya."
It's enough that we just love both these stars and we love them together a lot. In that respect, You Belong to Me is the real deal. I think of My Favorite Wife, a movie that's very derivative of The Awful Truth but in many way almost as enjoyable because the thing we love most about the original movie is screen couple that carries it. Fonda and Stanwyck were together in Miss Manton (1938), The Lady Eve and finally You Belong to Me. The final movie, has the benefit of the experience of the previous two.
Apart from the charm of the leads, the movie was directed by capable Westley Ruggles (brother of Charlie) who was a veteran of several Mae West and Claudette Colbert Paramount comedies in the previous decade. The script was adapted by Claude Binyon, a frequent collaborator with Ruggles from a story by Dalton Trumbo. All this one still wouldn't be enough to make a great romantic comedy without a good supporting cast. Edgar Buchanon (perpetual side-kick from films like Penny Serenade and the Talk of the Town); Melville Cooper (also in The Lady Eve but best known to me as Mr. Collins from the original Pride and Prejudice); and Ruth Donnelly (Emma Hopper in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) all have big, juicy parts in this movie.
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