Some thoughts on The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

A man and a woman are sitting beside a peaceful stream in beautiful Scotland. An artist, the man is trying to sketch the woman, but she's so blissfully in love that she can't help mentioning that in just a few hours, it will be their two week anniversary. As they embrace, their guide MacGregor warns that a storm is coming in. Within seconds, the idyllic scene is interrupted by torrential rain, forcing the lovers to take shelter in a cave. Wearing the man's jacket, the woman discovers a letter addressed to the last person she expected: his wife. Devastated, the woman runs away as MacGregor calls after her: "You'll catch your death of cold! Do ya hear me?! You'll catch your death!" It's that last word that echoes in the cave as the man looks down in anguish at the crumpled letter. Death... what if...

In London, the man stops at a chemist's shop to buy a concoction with a false name. He then arrives home where his young daughter has been keeping vigil over his bedridden wife. When a timer goes off, the girl readies her mother's daily glass of warm milk and
the man offers to take it to her. "Oh, good. She likes to have you do that. She told me so," the girl says, unaware of the darkness in her father's eyes. With the deadly milk in his hand, the man goes into his wife's bedroom, the door slowly shutting behind him with an unnerving creak.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls is about an insane painter and his constant search for his next muse. Nothing satisfies Geoffrey Carroll, making him into a deeply disturbed, haunted man. Very few actors could play this part without making Geoffrey too stifling or too one-note. As played by Humphrey Bogart, the character's madness becomes more obvious with the passing of each scene until Bogie is finally able to unleash some grade-A craziness in the last act. Portraying his second wife and potential second victim is Barbara Stanwyck, making The Two Mrs. Carrolls the only time Stany and Bogie worked together.

After the murder of the first Mrs. Carroll, we cut to a small English town called Ashton. A stranger appears at a cottage to call on Mrs. Carroll, who we realize is now Stanwyck's Sally, the woman from Geoffrey's tryst in Scotland. As the stranger waits for Sally, he meets Geoffrey's daughter, Bea, and we learn that two years have passed. Sally then appears to greet her visitor, her ex-boyfriend Charles "Penny" Pennington. Even though it is obvious that Penny still hasn't fully recovered from Sally leaving him for Geoffrey, the exes have remained good friends. This doesn't sit well with Geoffrey, leading Bogie to parody one of his most famous lines: "I have a feeling this is the beginning of the most beautiful hatred."

Although Geoffrey committed murder to pursue a happier life, he is still plagued by his demons. The first time we see him when the film jumps ahead two years, the score is tempestuous as he angrily erases his latest painting. "I don't understand it," he tells Sally. "I've got this fine old house, the most beautiful surroundings I've ever known, and you. I have everything here. Why isn't my work better? What's wrong?" What's wrong is Sally is no longer Geoffrey's muse, but neither notices that until the arrival of one Cecily Latham, played by the incomparable Alexis Smith.

When Penny introduces the Carrolls to Cecily and her mother, the contrasts between Sally and Cecily are instantly clear. Cecily is a glamorous and bitchy ice queen, whereas Sally is earthy, kind, and warm. Geoffrey and Cecily seem to clash from the second they meet. They wittily insult one another, but they are forming a connection too. Geoffrey agrees with her that "beauty is worth any sacrifice," and Cecily is an avid fan of his artwork. When they leave everyone on the patio to look at Geoffrey's paintings inside, Cecily thinks she sees right through his cold exterior: "In its place, I like that big, strong, he-man talk, but you can forget it now. We're alone, you know."

If this were a romantic comedy, the audience would know that these two are meant for each other -- after all, the couple that squabbles together stays together. However, this film is more like a rom-com gone wrong. Geoffrey agrees to paint Cecily's portrait, which makes Sally happy because it means money and maybe good publicity for Geoffrey amongst Cecily's high society friends. We never see these portrait sessions and we don't know how the relationship between artist and client is going until the Carrolls, the Lathams, and Penny are at the races. While everyone else is intensely watching the race, the camera gives us discreet shots of Geoffrey and Cecily holding hands and sharing secret glances. Three weeks later, we're told that Sally has been sick with an unexplained illness. Geoffrey has officially found his newest inspiration and she is a ruthless blonde with a phenomenal wardrobe.

Curiously enough, Sally isn't entirely clueless about this affair. Without malice or suspicion, she tells her husband that Cecily is in love with him and would leap at the opportunity to snatch him up. Geoffrey's hands precariously rest on Sally's shoulders, ready to do harm, but he realizes that he is still in the clear... at least until Sally figures it out just minutes later. Slowly, she discovers that everything she knew about her husband is a lie and it is mostly thanks to her stepdaughter. While speaking with Bea, Sally learns that the first Mrs. Carroll wasn't an invalid at all and what killed her sounds very similar to what Sally has been experiencing the past three weeks.

Bea also mentions a chemist who has been calling Geoffrey for months, the audience aware of the fact that the man is blackmailing Geoffrey after realizing that he sold Geoffrey the poison used on his first wife. As if all of this wasn't enough, Bea and Sally sneak into the locked attic to see what Geoffrey's latest painting looks like. Before Bea's mother died, she sat for Geoffrey and was depicted as an angel of death. Now it is Sally's turn as the girls stare in horror at his nightmarish rendering of Sally. This confirms her suspicions about Geoffrey, but instead of hightailing it out of there, Sally makes one decision after the next that makes no damn sense.

First of all, she stays in the house and hosts a dinner party that includes the Lathams and Penny. Geoffrey is absent because he is too busy in London killing the greedy chemist. Rather than tell Penny what is going on or go to the police, Sally sticks around. It is possible that she plans on doing something when Geoffrey leaves to drive Bea to her new boarding school that same night -- maybe that's when she is hoping to make her escape, but as soon as Geoffrey is gone, she doesn't rush to pack or anything. When he unexpectedly returns, Sally gets rid of the poisoned milk he hands her by pouring it out the window and heads to her room, which seems smart until Geoffrey notices that the window is open and there are puddles of milk on the floor. He begins planning how to kill Sally and decides to blame it on a local burglar who is terrorizing the town.

For the five minutes that it takes for Geoffrey to do all of this, Sally is just sitting in her room. She doesn't sneak out and when she decides to call Penny, their conversation is stopped by Geoffrey cutting the phone line. She tries to move a chair to block her door, but she is too weak. She cries and starts to pace. What now? Oh, let's try calling Penny again even though you know the phone is defunct. Okay, how about we try moving that heavy chair again? No? That still doesn't work? I hate to admit this, but when Geoffrey busts through the window like the maniac he is, I can't help but feel like Sally's dangerous position is partly her own fault. She had plenty of opportunities to save herself and for the sake of drama, the script doesn't allow her to take them. The saddest part is when Sally pulls a gun on Geoffrey and he easily swats it away. Her one moment of heroism doesn't even last for ten seconds.

What comes next is pretty strange. Geoffrey explains his villainous modus operandi, saying "It isn't what I want. It's what's got to be. You don't understand. My painting of you is finished." He begins strangling her, but as the police and Penny arrive, he finds that he can't go through with it. He unlocks the bedroom door and quietly leaves with the police. As they go down the stairs, Geoffrey offers them a glass of milk that they decline and they peacefully walk out. The end. Fade to black. What the hell.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls was originally a play by Marguerite Vale Veiller, who went by the pseudonym Martin Vale. The film diverted pretty drastically from its source material. In the play, Geoffrey's first wife isn't killed in the first act. Instead she lives off-stage until the third act. She telephones Sally to warn her that Geoffrey is poisoning her, which shocks the audience because up until then, they didn't suspect Geoffrey of such evilness. On the one hand, this twist might have benefited the movie, but on the other hand, it is kind of fun to see Bogie play a villain the whole time, even if it is a little hammy.

As you can tell, The Two Mrs. Carrolls has its issues. For one thing, I find Bea to be unsettling. She is too articulate, too grown-up, and somewhat emotionless. Her dialogue can be downright bone-chilling, such as this exchange when she first meets Penny and they are looking at the painting of her mother:

Penny: "It's a bit creepy don't you think?"
Bea: "That's only at first. You get accustomed to it. Then you think it's wonderful. She was my mother. Died a little less than two years ago."
Penny: "I'm sorry."
Bea: "You needn't be. We all die sooner or later."

It isn't just me who thinks that something is off with the little girl. The characters see it too, although they discount it as adorable precocity. "How old is she? 45 or 50?" Penny jokes to Sally. Later, Bea's own father -- you know, the psychopath -- comments to her "Sometimes you say rather startling things for a child." She explains that she doesn't have friends because the other kids are "too childish." I always tease that I was never really little, but Bea kind of takes it to the extreme. Child actress Ann Carter played Bea and she loved working with Stanwyck and Bogart, the latter of whom she called "a really nice man, a very warm, nice man." Carter was wonderful in The Curse of the Cat People, the surprisingly tender sequel to Cat People, but in The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Carter's character makes me uneasy, something that I don't think was the intention.

Another problem is the motif of ringing bells. As the film goes on, Geoffrey's instability is exacerbated every time he hears a bell, which isn't helped by the fact that he lives in a place called a "cathedral town." But where does this sensitivity to bells come from? Is it a nod to wedding bells? Is it because he heard the bell ring on the chemist's door when he purchased the poison for his first murder? Did the writers just add this quirk to make Geoffrey more out of control? All we know is that it feels out of place.

My biggest issue with this film, though, is the casting of Stanwyck and Bogart. Listen, I tried to love it, but the chemistry just isn't that abundant. This is only more evident when Bogart shares the screen with Alexis Smith. Their scenes crackle and excite. Smith is excellent as the scheming she-wolf, a role that Stanwyck proved to be brilliant at, too. Maybe that is what's wrong -- I can usually buy whatever Stanwyck is selling, but the helplessness of her character doesn't sit right with me. The script makes her too flat and too naive. Stany did the best she could, but it is what it is.

While watching this film, I found myself comparing it to two other movies. First, there is Suspicion. This is mainly because of three things: Nigel Bruce playing essentially the same character, poisoned milk, and a husband trying to kill his wife. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that The Two Mrs. Carrolls actually reminded me a lot of Conflict. Both films star Bogart as a man who wants to murder his spouse in order to be with Alexis Smith, and both films were made in 1945. However, while Conflict was released that year, The Two Mrs. Carrolls was shelved for two years.

I'm not going to say that you should never see The Two Mrs. Carrolls. I've got to be honest and say that the film disappoints me, but I know people who love it and find it to be a campy delight. Perhaps this is just one of those films that has to grow on me, or perhaps it will always miss its mark. I think the unique plot and the talented cast beg repeat viewings. As for how much time passes between those viewings, I really couldn't say.

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This is my contribution to the 'Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon, which focuses on cinematic marriages that go horribly wrong. On July 24th, you can check out the other entries by clicking here.

Comments

  1. I do really like this movie, and Ann Carter's performance too. The first time I watched, I was instantly reminded of Conflict. Makes me wish Stany and Bogie had worked together again.

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    1. I wish they had, too -- I feel like this film didn't totally complement their talents. I think The Two Mrs. Carrolls will be something that I'll keep coming back to, just to see if I change my mind about it.

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  2. Hmm - I'm kind of intrigued to check this out. It must be one of the few Bogie films I've never seen and I love Suspicion to bits so it might be up my street... even if it has its issues.

    Have to say I laughed at this line: "Within seconds, the idyllic scene is interrupted by torrential rain" - that's summer in Scotland!! ��

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    1. Although it isn't a favorite of mine and it certainly has some problems, I would still recommend this film to classic film fans. The pairing of Stany and Bogie is interesting, and Bogie is fun as a villain.

      I've never been to Scotland, but I've always gotten that impression, haha.

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. I'm with you, TTMC just doesn't work for me, and I agree that while Stanwyck is as always professional, she is miscast, and she and Bogart generate zero heat. Conflict is much better, though not a lot more plausible, but at least it's consistently entertaining, and we get Sydney Greenstreet to boot. One thing I see a bit differently, though: Bea / Ann Carter. It's an eccentric role, which I think was what Carter generally got and did beautifully, and a bit unsettling. I adore Curse of the Cat People and for me, any opportunity to spend time with her is a joy. I just wish the rest of the movie didn't feel so arbitrary.

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    1. Oh, I think Ann Carter does a good job with the character she is given. Bea just throws me off. It is such an odd role. She actually might be the smartest person in this film, the more I think about it.

      I agree with you about Conflict. It's a crazy ride, but it's an enjoyable one.

      Thanks for reading!

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  4. Yes, this film is a bit odd. In fact, I'd totally forgotten I'd seen it until I started reading your synopsis. I wanted to love this film – Stanwyck and Bogart? – but I just didn't. But your review has me wanting to look at it again. When I do, I'll be back to compare notes. :)

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    1. Please do! This film is a weird one. I enjoy certain aspects of it, but I mostly just wonder what could have been if some things had been done differently. I can't totally write it off, though. I'm sure I'll be rewatching it for years to come, trying to see if my feelings have changed.

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  5. Although the film may have its issues, I think I'll still give it a chance. after all, it's not every day that we can see Bogart and Stanwyck together! I really enjoyed your article.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Thanks! I hope you enjoy the film, even though it isn't perfect.

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  6. Is there ANY way for movies to make more sense with these types of mysteries? People in danger NEVER seem to leave fast enough or the first opportunity they get: "Hey I'm going to the store for a pack of cigarettes, I'll be right back." And then they come BACK! Oy vey!!! Dude, you wouldn't have to tell me twice!!! ( "Feets, do yo' stuff!!" ) Don't they think the audience'd notice? Instead of taking her sweet makes~no~sense~time, these events could be telescoped together. I laughed out loud when you talked about Stanwyck with a gun…for ten seconds. Oh Wow!

    I wish Stany and Bogie had met in another picture, better written, where Stanwyck could really bring out those Brooklyn claws. Would they have had another chance with stronger material, the Maven says wistfully. Siiiiigh! ( Ever notice how Stanwyck and Bette Davis have had the same male leads? Fonda, Brent, Bogie, Cagney… )

    I like the movie. Not like it like it, but like it. I like seeing these two powerhouses together even if the chemistry is off ( and YES to "CONFLICT." ) Yes to all you say about Bea, played by the ethereally beautiful Ann Carter. (She's as beautiful a blonde as young Elizabeth Taylor was a brunette! ) Apparently someone did not know how to write for children. Ahhhh, Alexis Smith. Statuesque, imposing and without humor almost always. Will the studio EVER let Alexis let down her hair ( figuratively and literally…that upsweep kills me. ) I'll watch this movie whenever it comes on 'cuz it's quintessential 1940's…flaws and all.

    Thanks so much Michaela for joining my blogathon. I appreciate. Great writing on this flawed film. :-)

    CineMaven

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    1. The things that scripts do to draw out suspense or create drama annoy me sometimes. I mean, can you really expect me to believe that Barbara Stanwyck couldn't devise a clever trap or something to delay her attacker?

      Stanwyck and Bogie are both tough as nails, so it's a shame that this movie doesn't quite tap into that. Can you imagine a gritty film noir with these two? It would've been fantastic.

      You know, while watching this movie for this blogathon, I started to realize that Alexis Smith has stealthily become a reliable favorite. It seems like everything I see her in, she's been wonderful, whether she is starring with Errol Flynn in a western or leading men to murder in pictures like Conflict. What an actress. (Funny you mention her hair. Doesn't that updo look painful sometimes?)

      Thanks for having me. It's been a blast being a part of such a fun blogathon.

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