In Name Only (1939)

In Name Only is new to our holiday watch list, but we decided to include it after watching the film last  year during one of our Cary Grant binges and realized that it has a few Christmas scenes. On several levels this is an unusual movie. Two of the finest romantic comedy stars from the 1930s (Carole Lombard and Cary Grant) appear in a nearly tragic melodrama, and both show their acting range. Another fine group of character actors add to the interest.


Cary Grant is stuck in a loveless marriage with Kay Francis, when he meets a vibrant widow, Carole Lombard.  We learn that Francis married Grant only because of his wealth and position and has carefully manipulated everyone, even his father (Charles Coburn), into believing that she is a patient, long-suffering wife.  Francis pretends to agree to give Grant a divorce, but months later when Grant learns that she will never let him go, he sinks into despair. In the last scene, despair turns to hope, when Francis’s malicious plans are overheard by Grant’s parents.


The film’s dénouement begins on Christmas Eve with a drooping tree and then one of the bitterest surprise parties you can imagine. The film continues through Christmas Day with Grant drinking himself into a stupor in a seedy hotel.   But hope triumphs, at the last minute, after much travail.


Charles Coburn, who plays Cary Grant’s father, is the connection from yesterday’s film, Bachelor Mother.  Coburn was a fine comic actor with a résumé of great films, such as The Lady Eve, The More the Merrier (for which he received an Oscar as best supporting actor) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  My favorite role of his, in which he also plays a department store owner as he did in Bachelor Mother, is The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).  Coburn worked on Broadway from 1901 to 1937, acting, directing and producing plays with his wife, Ivah Wills, with whom he formed a touring repertory company that performed Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, and French comedies.  After her death in 1937, Coburn moved to Hollywood.

Helen Vinson (who plays Kay Francis’s catty best friend, Suzanne)  will be seen in tomorrow’s film Beyond Tomorrow (1940), so I’ll wait till then to talk about her career.

Nella Walker (who plays Grant’s mother) had roles in such grand films as  Stella Dallas (1937), Kitty Foyle (1940) and Sabrina (1954).

Grady Sutton (who appears briefly as Suzanne’s escort in a scene on the train) appeared as a character actor in hundreds of films and TV shows.  He played Carole Lombard’s brief fiancé in My Man Godfrey (1936). Look for him later in the holiday watch list in White Christmas (1954), dancing with Rosemary Clooney at the engagement party at the General’s Columbia Inn in Vermont.

Another brief but important role is played by Maurice Moscovich as Dr. Muller.   You may remember him as Mr. Jaeckel, one of the residents of the Jewish ghetto, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940).


Charles Coburn was a fellow member of The Lambs Club, and along with Fred (and dozens of other stars who moved from New York to Hollywood in the 1930s), he was known by those club members who remained in Manhattan as the “Lost Sheep” or “Coast Cousins.”

George Rosener (who plays the seedy hotel doctor) appeared on a Shubert Sunday Concert bill with the Astaires on September 15, 1918, during the run of their second Broadway show, The Passing Show of 1918.

Frank Mills (who plays the bartender on Christmas Eve) appeared in several Astaire films.  He was a waiter in the opening scene of The Gay Divorcee (1934) and again as a waiter in the Lido in Top Hat (1935), as well as one of the gambler’s stooges in Swing Time (1936).  He’s also a soldier with Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941). We will see him again soon as the park bum in Holiday Affair (1949).


Cary Grant and Carole Lombard are two of our favorite actors, and seeing them together is a joy, even if the story is terribly sad.  Ultimately it is a fine, well-acted film, so we will probably keep it in future Christmas cinema rotations, especially since it adds a contrasting touch of sadness to the mostly upbeat films on the list.


Turner Classic Movies will be showing the film on Wednesday, December 19, at 2 p.m. (EST).