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NITA Movie Review: “Why, that’s bigamy!” “Yes, and it’s big of me, too!”

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

“Why, that’s bigamy!” “Yes, and it’s big of me, too!”[1]

myFavoritWife§ 18-6-201. Bigamy
(1) Any married person who, while still married, marries
or cohabits in this state with another commits bigamy,
unless as an affirmative defense it appears that at the time
of the cohabitation or subsequent marriage
(a) The accused reasonably believed the prior spouse to be dead; or
(b) The prior spouse had been continually absent for a period of five years during which time the accused did not know the prior spouse to be alive; or
(c) The accused reasonably believed that he was legally
eligible to remarry.

(2) Bigamy is a class 6 felony.

Know anyone who might fit into that definition? I’ll bet you do. That’s a still-viable, still-enforceable Colorado statute, although you’d probably have to have a pretty aggravated case before a DA would try to enforce it. Our ideas about marriage and cohabitation (living together as spouses although not legally married) have softened and mellowed over time. But those issues have always been grist for the Hollywood mill. And what came out of the Hollywood mill when bigamy was the issue was almost always a comedy.

The premier example of this is My Favorite Wife (1940), from RKO. It starred Cary Grant, Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. Directed by Garson Kanin, it was nominated for three Oscars, although it didn’t win any. The movie was a huge hit and when you watch it, you’ll see why.

Grant plays a lawyer, Nick Arden, whose wife Ellen (Dunne) has been missing after the ship she was one disappeared. In the interim, Nick has fallen in love with Bianca (Gail Patrick.) They want to marry, so Nick goes to court and has Ellen declared legally dead. The judge enters the order, Nick and Bianca marry, and leave on their honeymoon. (You can see this one coming from a mile off, can’t you?) Ellen returns, finds out about Nick’s marriage and locates him on his honeymoon night – and before anything honeymoonish happens between Nick and Bianca. Now Nick has to figure out how to discuss the situation with Bianca, but he just keeps putting off both an explanation and the consummation of their marriage. But it’s even more complicated than that. It turns out that Ellen has been shipwrecked on a tropical island with Stephen Burkett (Scott) and while there they referred to each other as “Adam” and “Eve.” Nick, now jealous, has to find out what – if anything — happened on the island. (One reason this screwball plot worked was that Randolph Scott was one of the few stars who was regarded as being as handsome as Cary Grant.)[2] Hilarity ensues, but it all works out in the end.[3]

From a legal perspective, this sounds a lot like a question on the Bar Examination. The movie uses the legal conundrums of the situation to give some wonderful scenes with the befuddled Judge Bryson who first declares Ellen to be legally dead, then has to deal with the aftermath of her not being dead, legally or otherwise. This poor black-robed nebbish is played by Granville Bates, and he’s one of my favorite screen jurists.

I know that some of the social issues that form the plotlines of movies from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s seem more than a little archaic to modern sensibilities. But folks, funny is still funny. And My Favorite Wife is very, very funny. Find it and enjoy it!

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[1] This quote is not from this month’s movie. It’s from Animal Crackers (1930), a Marx Brothers movie. I used it for several reasons: it fits the subject matter of this month’s movie; I absolutely love the Marx Brothers; and mostly because it’s funny!

[2] Scott worked in many different genres, but is most remembered as a rugged star of Westerns. He and Grant were very good friends, at one time sharing a beach house.

[3] Stuff like this can make real-life cases difficult, too. I had a hearing recently where an earlier marriage and divorce for husband came to light while testimony was being taken. The parties to the case knew all about it – but husband sort of forgot to tell his lawyer. Hilarity did not ensue.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
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