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A Guide for the Married Man

A Guide for the Married Man
1967 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 91 min. / Street Date September 6, 2005 / 14.98
Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Morse, Inger Stevens, Sue Ane Langdon, Elaine Devry
Cinematography Joe MacDonald
Art Direction William Glasgow, Jack Martin Smith
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Johnny Williams
Written by Frank Tarloff from his book
Produced by Frank McCarthy
Directed by Gene Kelly

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Demonstrating how terminally square Hollywood was during the years of the so-called 'sexual revolution,' this painfully dated comedy sums up the establishment idea of swinging in a way that would appeal only to men who doted on the cartoons in Playboy ... and didn't get the jokes.

Frank Tarloff's source book must have been a joke book, for that's all that A Guide for the Married Man has going for it. The trailer shows clueless adulterer-in-training Walter Matthau consulting a guide for cheating on one's wife, a link to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying underscored by the presence of Robert Morse as Matthau's tutor. Tarloff's script wants to be satirical but instead proves mainly that he doesn't understand the first thing about satire -- the joke seems to be on all those who might really believe in this warped code of conduct. A Guide for the Married Man mainly shows that 1967 America needed a sexual revolution even more than anyone thought it did.


Investment counselor Paul Manning (Walter Matthau) is happily married to Ruth (Inger Stevens) but his eye wanders to the surfeit of attractive and enticingly available women he sees everywhere, even his provocative married neighbor Irma Johnson (Sue Ane Langdon). Paul tells his best buddy Ed Stander (Robert Morse) about the problem and discovers that Ed is a full-time husband and part-time philanderer who has codified his complicated cheating philosophy into a set of rules. Ed explains the ropes to Paul through flashbacks explaining what happened to others who weren't careful enough -- object lessons in how not to get caught. Under Ed's careful guidance Paul takes the first steps to fashioning a foolproof way to deceive Ruth.

A Guide for the Married Man starts with an animated prologue showing man through history. A few classical quotes are offered as 'proof' that the convention of marriage needs to be circumvented through adultery. The function of a wife is to serve her husband, and a husband's duty is to get away with all he can, provided he doesn't hurt her feelings by being caught.

Paul Manning sheepishly listens to Ed Manning's smug lectures on cheating, which contain rules like "Never say you'll be somewhere where you can later be proved not to be," and "always make sure that whoever you cheat with has more to lose than you should the affair be found out." All of these nuggets of wisdom are dispensed with the self-serving sentiment that Paul will really be doing Ruth a favor by being dishonest with her, and that it's always better that she not know.

Director Gene Kelly adopts a flip commercial style that moves Matthau and Morse from one location to another across cuts, often in the middle of a dialogue line. Sidewalks and office corridors are packed with nubile young women in tight skirts and sweaters, all outdoing one another to attract men. 1967's idea of sexy is plenty of cleavage, zooms to various parts of anatomy and still frames of hips in full swing. The world is nothing but a giant harem, with willing women coming at Matthau from all directions.

Morse's lectures are illustrated by star cameos doing skits that range from okay (Joey Bishop denying his way out of being caught red-handed) to forced (Terry-Thomas losing track of Jayne Mansfield's bra while cheating in his own home) to just pitiful (Ben Blue escapes from a love nest but forgets to bring along his shoes). Phil Silvers does an okay bit with Louis Nye; Jack Benny doesn't get laughs from a tired cheapskate routine. The most elaborate skit shows Carl Reiner jetting around the world to a rendezvous while his mistress goes separately in the opposite direction to avoid being caught. Anyone who has seen a Droopy cartoon will know how the gag ends.

Also making brief impressions are Sid Caesar, Polly Bergen, Jackie Joseph, and Wally Cox. Jeffrey Hunter, Sam Jaffe and Marty Ingels appear in tiny bits. The most offensive moment in Lucille Ball's entire career happens when her hubby Art Carney uses verbal abuse to hide his extracurricular shenanigans. Carney: "I'm sorry baby, that I yell at you so much." Ball: "Oh that's all right, honey, I guess that's what wives are for." Oh, really.

In other words, the whole movie is a depressing look at the infantile, male-oriented mindset toward sex and matrimony in the mid sixties. It's of course an exaggertion, but not a flattering one.

A Guide for the Married Man is like a burlesque show for the right audience but with the wrong messages. The cheating women are all stacked glamour girls with nothing on their minds but sex, or at least being alluring at all times. These include Sue Ane Langdon, Jackie Russell, Majel Barrett and Elaine Devry. Langdon's character is a cheap tease at all times, while Devry plays the smoldering bombshell to Matthau's shrinking wimpus. Since not really all that much wit is involved, none of these scenes do a great deal except show the women looking uncomfortable in clothing that makes them wiggle across the screen instead of walk.

The film registers high on the hypocrisy meter. Everything rotates around the idea of sex, without nudity or real sexual behavior of any kind - it's all posing, leering and eye-rolling. Naturally, with the Production Code in force it couldn't be any other way, but there's something to be said for the honesty of the later freedom of the screen, at least once Hollywood got beyond the initial smut phase when the R rating came in -- Myra Breckinridge, etc.

The truly painful thing about A Guide for the Married Man is its treatment of the Inger Stevens character, a dutiful housewife far too idealized to be real. Stevens gives the part her all and is willing to be objectified as a sex toy -- that her hubby, in baggy-pants comedy fashion, naturally ignores. She cooks and cleans to make his life a paradise. Stevens greets Matthau home from work like Mary Tyler Moore in the Dick Van Dyke Show -- only she comes off as a clueless victim. Even the 'happy reconciliation' ending has nothing to do with her. It's interesting that Guide places such importance on the requirement that wifey stay in the dark and know nothing of what's going on. This attitude made the sometimes hectoring An Unmarried Woman ten years later a cultural shocker -- the philandering husband there is revealed as a faithless, worthless crybaby.

The farcial setup allows none of the females to have a character, and Stevens' personality seems to be fighting to get through, to no avail. It's really a distasteful thing to see. Screenings of this film alone would be enough to launch the feminist movement. Saying that the movie is just a comedy doesn't mean a thing -- this is what people believed. Guide brings the whole stinking state of affairs out in bold relief: Men and women exist on different planes, are natural enemies, and must deceive one another to play 'the game', etc.

Walter Matthau and Robert Morse have one-note characters to play. Matthau mugs well enough -- there's admittedly a hilarious panicked moment when he peels his car out from a motel driveway and down a boulevard, his head hidden under the dashboard the entire time. But Morse comes off as an obnoxious creep. The talented actor didn't cozy up to audiences with appearances in movies like The Loved One, Oh Dad Poor Dad Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad and this one.

Joe MacDonald's color photography uses many zoom shots but gets good mileage from frequent, well-designed optical and camera effects. Someone must have been experimenting with a camera speed / exposure / shutter rig, as the last shot goes from undercranked fast motion to overcranked slow motion within the same take. Composer John (Johnny) Williams does excellent work with a score that illustrates all of the film's 'kooky' material and yet finds its own sense of unity - his sentimental theme for Inger Stevens even starts to make some of her scenes work. And don't forget the 'swingin' title theme, written by Williams and sung by The Turtles!

Fox's DVD presents A Guide for the Married Man as well as could be expected. The image is always bright and cheerful (there are a lot of scenes in the first shopping center development in Century City) and colors are good. Full French and Spanish language tracks are included. The one extra is a trailer that concentrates on eyebrow-waggling promises of "Hoo-hoo!" racy material, and showcases many instances of wiggle and jiggle. I like Walter Matthau, but (yawn) this is not his finest hour.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Guide for the Married Man rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 13, 2005

An observation from the sharp-eared Glen Grant: Hello Glenn: I just read your GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN review and wanted to point out a bit of trivia: In the scene where Matthau and Morse are together in the motel room, the television is airing the station sign-off, which in those days included the bit about subscribing to the "Television Code," etc. etc. We hear some of the sign off and then the National Anthem. I just wanted to point out that the sign off is being read by director Gene Kelly. Now how about it? Does that merit a footnote?! -- Glenn

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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