When Rita Wilson (Barbara Stanwyck) meets and falls for epidemiologist Chris Claybourne (Robert Taylor), they have an instant connection and quickly fall in love with each other.
But Chris isn’t 100% invested in their relationship; he’s also wrapped up in his work. When he decides to leave for the tropics against Rita’s wishes to find an elusive cure he’s been searching for, Rita decides to get revenge.
While Chris is away, Rita marries his brother Tom (John Eldgredge), even though she’s still in love with Chris.
His Brother’s Wife (1936) is directed by W. S. Van Dyke from a screenplay by Leon Gordon and John Meehan. It is based on a story by George Auerbach.
The film doesn’t jump straight into the romantic complications: the earliest scenes focus on science alone. Chris’ experimentation is all very interesting and allows the viewer to understand his dedication to his work before setting up the love triangle scenario.
When we finally meet Rita, she’s revealed as a fun-loving gambler. Stanwyck gives the character a vibrant charisma at this point in the film.
As the relationship between Chris and Rita grows, they’re adorable to watch. Naturally, Stanwyck and Taylor have a ton of chemistry; they were married in the real world for nearly fifteen years. The characters are also written to seem very fun and highly compatible, getting the viewer to root for them quite quickly before the script tears them apart.
Once they are torn apart, the character of Rita completely changes. No longer the fun-loving girl you’d love to hang out with, she becomes a very schemey lady. Revenge-driven and full of sass, the character becomes less likable but remains interesting to watch. Of course, Stanwyck is able to pull off all sides of the character with ease, which aids in the viewer’s interest in her character’s journey.
Both Stanwyck and Taylor give very good performances here, though the film isn’t a personal best for either of them. The potential for a very juicy romantic melodrama isn’t exactly wasted, as the film does come close to reaching that potential, but the pace could use a pick-up at some points.
There are a few surprises to the plot, but nothing major, and it seems unfocused. I wish the writers would have chosen between heavy emphasis on the scientific plot and heavy emphasis on the romantic plot. As it is, the two sides of the film compete and end up distracting from each other far too much (though they do intersect in the end). It can be difficult for the audience to invest interest in both plot lines because the film doesn’t seem to have decided which of the two is the central plot line.
Though not perfect by any stretch, His Brother’s Wife is an interesting watch for fans of Stanwyck and Taylor or for fans of melodrama. The story could use a bit of tweaking, but the cast alone makes it worthy of one watch. The score: 3/5