As I watched the ending of Ida Lupino’s 1953 film The Bigamist, I kept thinking of a famous quote by the Anglo Irish Playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw.
“Polygamy,” he said, “when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons, is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it; for the maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one.”
Ida Lupino, who had a long career as an actress, was also one of the few women to make it as a director in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. From 1949, when she directed Not Wanted to 1963, when she directed The Trouble With Angels, Lupino made 8 films and 2 television shows. In The Bigamist, a 1953 film that starred Joan Fontaine, Edmond O’Brien, and Edmund Gwenn, she acts as well as directs.
While it might not be out of place in the age of Big Love and hipster polyamory, The Bigamist must have struck some people during the Eisenhower era as being just a little odd. Lupino worked within mainstream Hollywood and her aesthetics are always competent, if not exactly innovative or inspired. On the surface, the unimaginative lighting, the frugal if not exactly cheap sets, and the relatively conservative camera angles give The Bigamist almost the look of a 1950s TV show, a beefed up Twilight Zone. Lupino, as an aside, would go onto act in as well as direct two Twilight Zone episodes. But under the cover of its plain appearance, The Bigamist has a quietly subversive agenda.
The Bigamist opens with Harry Graham, a puffy looking Edmond O’Brien, and Eve Graham, a statuesque, blond Joan Fontaine, in the office of a San Francisco adoption agency run by Mr Jordan, Edmund Gwenn. Eve is sterile, and can’t have children. The adoption should come off without a hitch. Harry and Eve are both in their 30s, have been happily married for 8 years, and run a successful business. But something about the way Harry scowls as he signs the release form for a background check makes Mr. Jordan suspicious enough to start poking around. There’s nothing amiss in Harry and Eve’s apartment. Quite the contrary, everything is stylish, well-ordered, prosperous. It’s the kind of San Francisco apartment that would sell for over a million dollars if it were on the market today. What’s more, Eve’s not only a gracious hostess, she’s also more than an assistant to Harry. She’s a full partner in their company, a distributor of electric freezers, which, in the 1950s, would have been a bit like saying they’re a couple who ran a software company, or a Tesla distributor, or who marketed solar panels. Freezers in the early 1950s were the future. What child wouldn’t want to grow up in a family like this?
But Mr. Jordan is not satisfied. While Eve is friendly and gracious, Harry seems tense and hostile. He decides to travel to Harry’s branch office in Los Angeles. There he finally unravels the secret. Harry Graham is living a double life. Unable to find an address under Harry Graham, Mr. Jordan spots a commemorative letter open with the name Harrison Graham. That leads to a bungalow in the LA suburbs where he discovers Harry with another wife and a baby. Harry breaks down and tells his story.
A year before, Harry had been on business in Los Angeles. Feeling lonely, he jumped on a tour bus explore the “houses of the stars.” There he meets Phyllis Martin, Ida Lupino herself. Phyllis Martin isn’t as beautiful as his wife. She works as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. She’s standoffish and hostile. Yet something about her draws Harry. Perhaps he feels as if he’s met his soul mate. Perhaps he resents Eve’s inability to have children more than he’s letting on. Perhaps he’s intimidated by Eve’s business acumen. Indeed, there’s more than a hint that she’s the dominant partner in their refrigerator business, not him. Is this another case of a man being intimidated by a successful women and gravitating towards someone more dependent? In any event, Harry and Phyllis begin a relationship which, although seems less than happy, eventually produces a child.
Harry, more confused than manipulative, more needy than exploitive, decides to marry Phyllis without telling her about Eve and go through with the adoption without telling Even about Phyllis The physical appearance of all three actors really workers here. Harry is attractive to women, yet he’s puffy and round shouldered, weighted down by his secret and by the weight of managing two women at once. Eve is sleek. Phyllis is dark haired, brown eyed, needy, sensual, the opposite of the more dominant Eve, the cold, sterile San Francisco business woman without the ability to have children. Mr. Jordan, who also played Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, is the wise father, or even grandfather figure who finally gets to the bottom of Harry’s double life.
What makes The Bigamist oddly subversive is the way Ida Lupino undercuts the sense of dread. Indeed, to spent half the film expecting it to turn into a murder mystery, for Harry to kill Mr. Jordan, and spend the second half looking for a place to stash the body. But nothing even remotely like that happens. Harry is relieved, not outraged. He can finally tell the truth to both two women he loves in their own way. Mr. Jordan, in turn, feels sorry for Harry more than he feels moral outrage. He doesn’t even threaten to call the police. The only consequence Harry will pay is not getting the child, something that’s probably more of a punishment for Eve than it is for him. It’s Harry himself who calls the police, who turns himself in back in San Francisco.
If the ending of The Bigamist is underwhelming, that’s the whole point. Harry’s killing Mr. Jordan or committing suicide, or murdering one of the two women would be to push the film into the realm of melodrama. But Ida Lupino is strictly realistic. The Bigamist closes in a courtroom with Harry standing in front of a judge. His lawyer pleads for clemency and the judge seems sympathetic. We get the sense that Harry will face some kind of consequences, but that he won’t do any serious jail time. The judge even remarks that a long jail sentence will prevent Harry from paying child support.
Is Ida Lupino suggesting here that there’s nothing wrong with Harry having sister wives? Is she telling us that the sterile but competent Eve, the fertile yet dependent Phyllis, and Harry make a better trio than a couple? Is she suggesting that polygamy, or polyamory, is a more natural state of affairs than monogamy? George Bernard Shaw argued that judicially enforced monogamy had been instituted by inferior men who would find themselves celibate. Here, Lupino suggests, the only snake in the Garden of Eden is Eve. It was her decision to adopt a child in the first place that led to the breakup of what seemed a perfectly workable polyamorous relationship. It’s unlikely that Harry and Even will stay married. More likely, Harry will lose them both, wind up a lonely single man on probation paying child support after a costly divorce. That, Lupino suggests, is the real tragedy.
Just a note: Joan Fontaine died last December at the age of 96. Her third husband, Collier Young, had previously been married to none other than Ida Lupino. What’s more, it was Collier Young who wrote the original screenplay for The Bigamist. So it’s probably safe to say that much of the film is autobiographical.