"The distance between the library and the bedroom is astronomical."
Oh! brother: stagey, fitfully amusing...and very mild, sex comedy. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released, Oh, Men! Oh, Women!, the 1957 romantic farce based on co-scripter Edward Chodorov's Broadway play, directed and co-written by Nunnally Johnson, and starring Dan Dailey, Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Barbara Rush, and Tony Randall in his feature film debut. One of those dirty-minded yet scrupulously clean send-ups from the late 1950s and early 1960s Hollywood, Oh, Men! Oh, Women! is hardly distinguished in the laughs department (nor in director Johnson's usual flat, boring, visual style), but it does have a first-rate group of performers (...with one big quibble) who manage to wring out a few chuckles. No extras for this nice-looking anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer.
Freudian psychoanalyst Dr. Alan Coles (David Niven) is completely in control of his life, both personally and professionally. Believing himself to be the perfect analyst, Dr. Coles doesn't act God-like at all, as one of his patients (Natalie Schafer) suggests all analysts do, but rather he acts the part of a rational professional trained to help, not judge, his patients. Dr. Coles' personal life is neatly tied up, as well; he's to marry Myra Hagerman (Barbara Rush) tomorrow, and set sail on a European cruise. Myra, willful, scatterbrained and quirky, would seem to be a strange choice for orderly Dr. Coles, where the suggestion of his periodic condescension towards her behavior suggests as much a professional challenge as a romantic interest to him. Imagine his surprise and horror, then, when he discovers brand-new referral patient, highly neurotic Grant Cobbler (Tony Randall), harbors a near-psychotic rage/passion for his ex: Myra. Even more troubling is when Dr. Coles learns from his bored, identity-challenged patient Mildred Turner (Ginger Rogers), that her emotionally-absent husband, star actor Arthur Turner (Dan Dailey), once had a fling with a budding actress: Myra. When faced with the reality that his bride had a "past" that might not be so past, the sparks fly.
Maybe Oh, Men! Oh, Women! played better on the stage, where the farcical physicality of the slamming doors and raised voices created more of a direct connection with the audience. As Oh, Men! Oh, Women! plays here, it's regrettably flattened out, the pace of the farce broken up by stagnant scenes that need some punch, and a wide, wide CinemaScope palette that's empty save for the actors plunked down in the middle of the frames. Individual scenes do score at times, and the editor manages to salvage some funny reaction shots here and there, well-timed for laughs, but overall, Oh, Men! Oh, Women! is fairly stodgy and long-winded--a trait common in more than a few pictures directed by the better writer, Nunnally Johnson (he wrote movies such as Roxie Hart, The Woman in the Window, My Cousin Rachel, and The Dirty Dozen, but he directed movies like Night People, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and The Angel Wore Red).
By this point in 1957, there were still a few more years to go before the Hollywood studios made any serious challenges to the Production Code, so a romantic sex farce like Oh, Men! Oh, Women! was going to remain resolutely naughty but nice, regardless of what had been in the original stage production. Innuendo was fine, as long as it was oblique enough to pass by the censors (when Randall, who is unaware that Niven is engaged to his ex, Rush, admits that he and the doctor now "have something in common," Niven's blanch says it all). Hollywood's obsession with Freudian psychology was long established by '57 (who in Tinsel Town wasn't on the couch back then?), so spoofing it here through Niven's outwardly calm, inwardly conflicted analyst was hardly groundbreaking comedy, either. The familiar, even corny jokes (even for 1957) about marriage, and about women, and about men, though delivered by supposedly sophisticated, polished characters, are really no different than the "har har har" variety you'd find in any average TV sitcom of the day (Dailey offers that "a psychoanalyst needs a psychoanalyst if he has a woman for a patient"...to the sound of crickets in the stalls. Had Ralph Kramden bellowed it, the line would have killed).
When Oh, Men! Oh, Women! tries to blend pathos in with the laughs, it's even more fractured in tone. Talented Rogers, looking sexy as hell in long shot (but terribly lit in close-up by cinematographer Charles G. Clarke), has a potentially interesting role here as a neglected wife searching for her own identity. However, any foreshadowing of potential proto-feminist thematics (she tells Dailey she feels like Nora in A Doll's House) is quickly squelched by Rogers' forced drunken hiccupping and writer Chodorov's pat, thoroughly conventional remedy for her emotional tribulations: she's to be needed, not dominated by Dailey (no wonder Rogers, a Best Actress Oscar-winner a long way away from her top ten box office days, took one look at her second-billed nothing role in Oh, Men! Oh, Women! and promptly left the big screen for eight years). Dailey, enjoying his last fling with prominent movie roles at this later stage of his career, is given a couple of rather poignant moments as a husband questioning how, exactly, he's supposed to emotionally satisfy his wife when he's just a regular guy, a regular husband...and he's quite good with them. However, these scenes bring the movie to a crashing halt (his re-interpretation of Ibsen is interminable), and, just like Rogers, Johnson's and Chodorov's "cure" for what ails his romantic psyche has all the complexity of "Freud Meets Bazooka Joe": treat Rogers like you did when you first met her, and woo her. Rush's outwardly scattered, supposedly complicated, soon-to-be independent female character is given even more of a patronizing solution to her problems. At the movie's finale, she socks Niven in the arm like an older sister and admits she wants Niven to treat her like a little girl: scold me for my feminine flights of irrationality and pique...and then apologize to me to make me feel better for taking my medicine. Debating whether or not any of this kind of cracker-barrel psychoanalyzing is valid, particularly seen from our context today, is in the end entirely beside the point: the fact that this generalized, cliched superficiality pops up at all, just proves how predictable and square the supposedly hip, naughty Oh, Men! Oh, Women! really is at its core.
Still...you can find some scattered laughs throughout Oh, Men! Oh, Women!, thanks largely to Niven and Randall. The year before, Niven had just secured his place in Hollywood's leading ranks by anchoring Mike Todd's massive international hit, Around the World in 80 Days, so it had to be a bit strange to find himself third billed here behind fading stars Dailey and Rogers. He has probably the least to actually do here, but that suits Niven's assured underplaying quite nicely, and he gets off some very funny silent reaction shots to his supporting cast. Randall, in his movie debut after scoring on television's Mr. Peepers and on the stage, walks away with the lion's share of the laughs the minute he first walks onscreen. Cast as a highly neurotic ex-paramour of Rush's, Randall establishes his future up-tight, droning, whining screen persona immediately, and hilariously, as he unconsciously straightens Niven's secretary's desk before screaming that he hates Rush with a passion. It's a comedic tour de force for Randall, one that he would refine throughout the 60s in his more high-profile outings. Unfortunately for Oh, Men! Oh, Women!, the pivotal role of Myra goes to Rush, when it should have gone to someone like Fox's Monroe, who could have projected the necessary chaotic sexuality the character needs. Rush simply doesn't make us believe she could entrance these three guys, with a brittle, hard sheen to her comedic flailings that seems studied and phony (her taxi cab ride opening, or her oblivious cracker-eating scene, are right out of an acting student's lab exercise). And that vacuum at the center of this slight farce, sucks out what remaining wind was lifting Oh, Men! Oh, Women!'s sails.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.