This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Deborah Kerr.
Deborah Kerr (rhymes with "star") was on screen a woman of elegance. As such, it seems a curious fit to see her in what is meant as high romantic farce. Dream Wife certainly tries to be that, but somehow it does not come off.
The Khan of Bukistan is the key to a major oil concession, one that the State Department would love to negotiate on favorable terms. For his part, His Majesty is pleased with businessman Clemson Reade (Cary Grant). Clem for his part finds the beautiful Princess Tarji (Betta St. John) equally pleasing, even if he speaks no word of Bukistani.
Clem's great goal is to marry "Effie" Effington (Deborah Kerr), a high-ranking State Department official. Effie however, is simply too wrapped up in her work to be even remotely interested in Clem. She thinks nothing of delaying their wedding and seems to almost go out of her way to ignore him. Surprising to Effie, Clem breaks off their engagement and turns his eye to the Princess. Perhaps as a joke, Effie sends the telegram Clem had thought of sending to Tarji to propose marriage.
To the shock of all, the Khan accepts! Making matters worse, Effie's boss McBride (Walter Pidgeon) assigns her to be Tarji's minder (apparently, she is the only American who speaks Bukistani fluently). As Clem attempts to bridge the cultural divide almost blind, Effie trains the Princess in the ways of the Western woman. Will the Princess find women's lib? Will Clem get anywhere close to a kiss? Will Effie reveal more than her real name of "Priscilla" to her ex-fiancé?
Dream Wife was not only cowritten by Sidney Sheldon (along with Herbert Baker and Alfred Lewis Levitt) but directed by him. Perhaps this is why Dream Wife feels curiously sluggish and somewhat forced. So much of Dream Wife feels forced, as if the cast and crew is dead set on making things funny that it ends up almost never being funny.
There were, to be fair, a few moments where I did laugh. Both of them involved Cary Grant, who was a master at being simultaneously elegant and silly. The first is when dancing to various styles of music to set the mood for his dinner date with Effie. The second is when, on his wedding day, he sees Effie pass by and asks, "Priscilla, what are you doing tonight?".
Grant is very determined to sell Clem's constant frustration at being essentially prostituted for the Khan's oil; as a side note, this plot element reminded me of Protocol, which also had an American sold to a foreign potentate. Unlike Protocol though, Clem was fully aware of what was going on, but seemed incapable of finding a way out of it.
I can see why Cary Grant appeared in something like Dream Wife. Sheldon had won an Oscar for his screenplay to The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, a big hit for Grant. Grant certainly works hard to sell the premise. However, the premise makes Clem look like a total idiot with no ability to think. It also takes a curious tactic in suggesting that somehow, he is the bad guy for being in the situations he finds himself in.
Perhaps Dream Wife was making a case for how American women were the equals to men, but Clem's frustrations at being ignored were quite valid. Here he is, eager to marry Effie, but she is the one who puts business before pleasure. She keeps letting work get in the way, up to where she openly ignores Clem for McBride at what is meant to be an intimate dinner. From my perspective, Clem was absolutely right for being irritated at being ignored. Moreover, he was if not right at least within his rights to be upset about being denied even a simple kiss due to Bukistani customs.
That does not take away from how dumb Clem is. In all the time he is with Tarji, he very late in the film appears to finally learn even simple Bukistani words. To be fair, it seems hopelessly ridiculous to think no one apart from Effie spoke Bukistani. She appears to lord that fact and ability over everyone, which does make her look good.
Like Grant, Kerr at least was game for trying to be light. Also, like Grant, Kerr could not pull it off. To be fair, she did have a great scene when, using her feminine wiles, she hoodwinks the Khan to keep both the wedding and the treaty going. She was actually better when with St. John, and here Dream Wife appears to find a better angle for a story. Their scenes together, when Effie is educating our foreign princess on the ways of modern woman, work well. You almost long for a film focused on Tarji's awakening, with Clem being the object of her misguided affection. Again, this suggests a precursor to Coming to America: the foreign royal who adopts a more Western worldview.
Still, underneath what is meant to be lighthearted, Dream Wife has a pretty cynical view of the world. The fictional Bukistan, vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely Indian, is a place that would make Barbie's "Kendom" look positively progressive, with its sexual segregation and women who are trained to only please men. The Khan wryly observes, "American women are not mothers. They are fathers". How that would play now one can only guess.
Dream Wife is really a B-picture with A-level talents. There is a germ of an idea here, one that might benefit from a remake. As it is now, it is not a nightmare, but no sweet dream either.