THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER. 1942. Franchot Tone, Joan Bennett, Allyn Joslyn, Lloyd Corrigan, Cecil Cunningham, Hans Conreid. Screenplay by Gina Kaus (her story) & Jay Dratler, with additional dialogue by Harry Segall. Directed by Richard Wallace. Available for viewing online on several sites, including this one.

   With World War II coming at the end of the heyday of the screwball comedy of the Thirties, it was only natural that the new war movies would cross genres with the popular romantic comedies of only a year or so before, and perhaps natural too that the fit and the public reaction would be mixed.

   While Lubitch’s To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny was the hallmark of absolute genius for the genre not everything worked quite so well, and even that classic met mixed reactions when it came out.

   Even before the war there had been some uncomfortable if admirable attempts at mixing the two like Mitchell Leisen and Billy Wilder’s Arise My Love, a romantic comedy that turns quite dark and serious as the war intrudes or Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon with American stripper Ginger Rogers married to Nazi provocateur Walter Slezak encountering American radio journalist Cary Grant (who at one point comes close to being sterilized in a Concentration Camp) and ending with a jolly turn as Slezak falls overboard on a passenger liner on the way to practice his provocations in the States giving Grant, Rogers, and the ship’s Captain pause to debate whether they should rescue him … they don’t.

   These films are a slightly different genre than out right comedies like All Through the Night or various versions of comedic stars battling comic opera Nazi’s (Cairo even does it to music as bumbling Robert Young sinks a German sub while American spy Jeanette MacDonald warbles), and as the genre goes none are stranger than 1942’s The Wife Takes a Flyer.

   Allyn Joslyn is Major Zellfritz, a total Hitlerian idiot replete with a Sergeant whose only job is to massage his arm as he tires of Heil Hitler-ing. Along with every other Nazi in Occupied Holland he is out to find a flier shot down the night before who saw secret Nazi installations. His search leads him to the home of the Woverman’s whose daughter in law, the beautiful Anita (Joan Bennett) is divorcing their son who is due back from the sanitarium that evening.

   Zellfritz is instantly smitten and moves himself in, which would be bad enough save that the missing flier, Christopher Reynolds (Franchot Tone), has just shown up hiding in the cistern, and in desperation gets passed off as the returning husband the insane Hendrik (Hans Conreid), and Reynolds is instantly smitten with Anita too.

   Reynolds is playing madman and flirting, Zellfritz is blocking him and madly jealous, the Woverman’s (Lloyd Corrigan and Barbara Brown) only want to keep the Nazis from realizing they are hiding an Allied flyer, and Anita only wants her divorce the next day and to get out of the madhouse.

   Meanwhile rather than be released Hendrik has broken out.

   Oh, and of course Reynolds needs to make a clandestine meeting and arrange to get out of Holland so he can report on the secret installations he saw. But first the has to sabotage Anita’s divorce because he is so smitten with her he doesn’t want her to go away.

   Before it’s over there is divorce proceeding where Reynolds goes completely nuts, Anita moves in with a home full of man crazy older ladies who get enlisted in Reynold’s mission, a public trial (for an assault the real Hendrick perpetrated) where Reynolds joins the Nazi Party, and all the time he and Anita are falling in love.

   At no point does anyone address how American flier Reynolds and the other flier he meets up with happen to speak Dutch well enough to pass as natives among the Dutch or the Germans.

   Granted screwball comedy operates on a different level than the mundane reality we all live in, but this film is almost surreal in its disregard for any kind of linear storytelling or human behavior. In most screwball comedy there are at least a handful of normal people to react against and poke fun at. Here everyone but Bennett is completely nuts, and even her character seems totally indifferent to WW II.

   And that doesn’t even address Allyn Joslyn’s performance as Zellfritz, a broad even cartoonish interpretation that makes Sig Ruman look restrained. His face screwed up as if he had been sucking on alum, his walk strangely stiff, and his behavior better suited to a Daffy Duck cartoon than a human it is the ultimate comic opera Nazi in a genre where comic opera Nazi’s were the standard.

   The problem is that at no point are any of the Nazis in the film even vaguely threatening. Granted To Be Or Not To Be was broad, but this never quite rises to that level of genius and instead is just strange, an odd relic of two genres that weren’t really compatible colliding head on and ultimately not making a lick of sense. It is fun, with that cast of actors it would almost have to be, but if you engage your brain at all you may find it slightly bruised by the effort to make sense of the goings on.

   It’s hard to believe that no one at any point during the filming of this did anyone speak up and ask what the hell was going on.

   Maybe they were afraid someone would tell them.