Even if you haven’t watched them, you’ve probably heard of most of the best films of 1939. It’s the birthplace of some of the most beloved, quoted and remembered films. In 1939, every major star we think of from the Golden Age made a film—Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Humphre Bogart…I could go on.
Nineteen-thirty nine gave us Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.
And it’s perhaps because it was released during the year that was an embarrassment of riches that we often forget about a wonderful melodrama called In Name Only.
We might also forget about it because it defies expectations—in 1939, if you put your quarter down for a movie starring the two greatest screwball comedians ever to have lived, you expect to laugh.
And yet Carole Lombard and Cary Grant deliver two quietly lovely performances as an earnest couple in love despite the fact he is married to someone else.
It would be like casting Melissa McCarthy and George Clooney in a Nicholas Sparks movie.
It shouldn’t work.
And yet In Name Only is a tender gem that should not be overlooked.
Grant plays Alec Walker, a wealthy man who’s been emotionally dead since discovering his cold-blooded wife married him only for his money and no longer pretends she ever loved him. He’s resigned to his loveless marriage until he meets Julie Eden, an open hearted widow with a young daughter.
Desperate for the moments of happiness he finds with Julie, he doesn’t tell her he is married. Once she inevitably finds out, the love between them becomes equal parts joy and sorrow.
Carole Lombard, deprived of all her physical comedy tricks, is quite convincing as a good, moral woman caught between her heart and the strictures of the time. It is clear that she never would have entertained a romance with Alec had she known he was married. And yet once she loves him, she finds it impossible to either stay with him or to give him up.
And it’s hard to blame Alec for misleading her, as he is stifled in his loveless home and at first just looking for some afternoons filled with light and laughter. Cary Grant can never be anything less than charming, but he tones down his mischievous side so that we know Alec has nothing but respect for Julie despite deceiving her. This is no casual fling, and he is no cad.
Alec’s wife does all she can to paint Julie as a common tramp, and Julie agonizes over her disgrace of carrying on with a married man. Alec demands a divorce, but his wife finds one reason after another to delay until it becomes clear she will never free him.
Julie leaves Alec, breaking her heart to salvage her self-respect, but when Alec grows deathly ill both wife and mistress rush to his side.
In true soap opera fashion, Alec’s viper of a wife keeps Julie from seeing him. Without Julie, Alec has lost the will to live and is near death. When Julie finally reaches him and promises him they will be together, he turns the corner for the better. His wife is exposed as the viper she is, and a happy ending is assured.
Cue the dramatic music.
It’s a sentimental, dramatic tear-jerker.
Just the kind of movie I’m a sucker for.