Made for Each Other starts off as a comedy, drifts into drama, plunges into melodrama, and then closes as a comedy, the overall result being uneven and unsatisfying, especially since the parts of the movie that count as comedy are not all that funny.
The movie begins by announcing that of all the people in New York, John Mason (James Stewart) is one of the least important. He works for a law firm, and while on a brief trip to Boston to get a deposition for an upcoming case, Higgins versus Higgins, he met a woman named Jane (Carol Lombard) and married her. It really is amazing, looking back now from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, how unthinkable that would be today. Now, even in 1939, when this movie was made, marrying a woman after having known her for only a few days would have been exceptional. But people did fall in love and get married in those days far more quickly than now. That is not surprising, considering that before the sexual revolution, a lot of people never had sex until they got married, and so couples were often in a hurry to tie the knot.
But it is not simply that people could not wait to have sex with each other. Rather, there was a widespread belief at that time that marriages were made in Heaven. This belief is expressed in the title of the movie. So, once you met the person you were made for, there was no reason to hesitate. Today, few people still believe this sort of thing. We fall in love and have sex, not necessarily in that order, and then we fall out of love and break up. We do this a few times with a few different people, and maybe when we find someone we really seem to get along with, we finally decide to get married, usually after living together for a while. And then, as often as not, we end up getting divorced anyway. And thus it is that today we look upon the notion that people are “made for each other” with a jaundiced eye.
Anyway, when John returns to the office, Carter, his chief rival for being made the next junior partner of the firm, suggests that senior partner Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn) might be displeased with the news owing to the expectation that John would marry Doolittle’s daughter Eunice. John dismisses that as just a rumor. But he is embarrassed and hesitant about telling Doolittle, so we have to wonder. It is never clear what John’s relationship with Eunice really amounted to, whether they even ever went out on a date.
John and Jane prepare to go on their honeymoon by taking a ship to Europe. In their cabin, there is a small bed, which is just barely big enough for the two of them. They get on the bed and try it out. A lot of people believe that in old movies, if a man and woman got on the same bed, at least one of them had to have one foot on the floor. There is nothing about that in the Production Code, and this is one of several movies that prove that the rule never existed. For another example, see Fallen Angel (1945). The honeymoon, however, is called off when John has to go back to the office, because the continuance he thought he had for Higgins v. Higgins has been rescinded, with the trial scheduled for the next Monday.
Somewhat later, with John’s mother Harriet living with him and Jane, they have Doolittle, Carter, and Eunice over for dinner. John thought he was being groomed for being made a partner, but Doolittle announces that the new partner will be Carter, owing to the recommendation made by Eunice, presumably because she is a woman scorned.
In the next scene, we see Jane leaving the doctor’s office, having just found out that she is pregnant. She goes to the courtroom, where John is summing up the case of Higgins v. Higgins to tell him the news. So, let’s get this straight. John and Jane got married during John’s brief visit to Boston. They never even had a honeymoon because of the upcoming trial. And even though the trial is not over, Jane has been pregnant long enough to have made an appointment with the doctor and gotten back the lab results. All I can figure out is that Higgins v. Higgins must have been one long trial.
After the baby is born, there follows a lot of helpless-husband and interfering mother-in-law routines that are supposed to be funny. Maybe they were funny in 1939. As I noted above, things were very different in 1939 from the way they are now. And one way in which they are different is in the status of a housewife. For some time now, feminists have bristled over the question often addressed to women, asking them if they work. The implication of such a question, in their opinion, is that housewives do not work. Well, judging by this movie, one has to wonder. From the beginning of their marriage, John and Jane have had a cook.
That is breathtaking all by itself. How many people do you know have a full-time cook? And this entire story takes place during the Great Depression, when times were especially hard. But not so hard that they cannot afford a cook, apparently. Anyway, the cook tells Jane that her job is to prepare meals, and that Jane can wash the diapers herself. Jane is devastated. She tells the cook she is fired. Of course, she immediately hires another one, presumably one who will wash the diapers as well as cook the meals (Ew!). In other words, this apartment has two women in it, John’s wife and mother, neither of which has a job, and between the two of them, they cannot cook their own meals and wash the diapers. Well, maybe housewives today “work,” just as the feminists claim, but I am not so sure about the ones in the 1930s, if this movie is any indication.
John despairs about the fact that he was not promoted and given a raise, making it a bit of a struggle to pay the bills. Of course, if I had a full-time cook, I would have trouble paying the bills too, but enough of that. Jane tells John he should just barge into Doolittle’s office and demand a raise, saying Doolittle cannot do without him. That makes me cringe. One should never ask for a raise with that attitude. One should always assume that the boss will say no, and be prepared for that. Anyway, Jane pumps John up enough to do it, but before John can demand his raise, Doolittle tells him that business is off and everyone will have to take a twenty-five percent cut in pay, and that he himself will be making a substantial reduction in his drawing account. As John leaves the office, we hear Doolittle talking to a commissioner on the phone that he wants to buy that house on Park Avenue.
John goes out and gets drunk, coming home at two in the morning. He drops a bottle of milk, waking up the new cook Lily (Louise Beavers). All right, just a cotton-pickin’ minute. Now they have a live-in cook? And as we see in the next scene, she is also a nanny, because she is taking care of the baby in the park.
Because of the cut in pay, the Mason family starts going into debt, even to the point of having collection agencies being sicced on them. Jane looks for a job, but cannot find one. Finally, she is so desperate, she has to let go of Lily. Now she will have to work in the home, just like a modern housewife. In fact, John gets so depressed that he has turned his wife into a “household drudge” that he decides that they should get a divorce so that she won’t be married to a failure. In the course of lamenting their marriage, he even says that maybe they should not have had the baby.
Uh-oh! You know what that means. It’s punishment time. While they are at a night club for New Year’s Eve, Jane calls home and finds out that the baby is sick. He is rushed to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with an infection so severe that unless they can obtain some of the new, experimental serum, the baby will die. Unfortunately, it will have to be flown in from another state during a blizzard. Chances are, the pilot will not make it. Communication with the pilot is lost, and it is beginning to look hopeless. The nurse, who is also a nun, tells Jane there is one more thing she can do. She leads her to the chapel, where Jane prays to a statue of Jesus.
I would have given anything for that scene to be followed by one in which we see the plane crash into the side of a mountain. Well, that didn’t happen, of course. The pilot bails out of the plane and crawls to a farmhouse, and the farmer calls the hospital. The serum gets there on time, and the baby is saved. It is interesting to note that we no longer see scenes like this in mainstream movies. They still make religious movies, of course. But if no mention is made of religion for most of the movie, throwing in a scene where somebody prays, bringing about a miracle, just about never happens any more. It was a scene like that that spoiled Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). Solving a dramatic problem with a deus ex machina has never been satisfying, and I am glad we are finally rid of it.
Anyway, the movie ends with John’s being made a junior partner and lecturing the other partners about how there will have to be some changes made. Given this promotion, there can be little doubt that Jane has hired Lily back to be a live-in cook and nanny again. So now she doesn’t have to work in any sense of the word.