Review: Leo McCarey’s “Once Upon a Honeymoon,” Starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers

Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers in
Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers in "Once Upon a Honeymoon"

Radio comedian Jack Benny once noted that there were only two film directors he would sign on to make a picture with instantly: Ernst Lubitsch and Leo McCarey.1 The filmmakers had another thing in common; in 1942 both would take risks by releasing comedies set in Europe during the early days of the Nazi invasion. Lubitsch got Benny to star in his Nazi satire To Be or Not to Be, while McCarey’s screwball comedy Once Upon a Honeymoon came several months later with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. One of the films is a complete comic masterpiece, the other is Once Upon a Honeymoon. Benny lucked out that Lubitsch asked first.

McCarey’s film is set in Vienna in 1938, where Grant plays a reporter investigating the rumored Nazi allegiances of the Austrian Baron Von Luber (Walter Slezak). He attempts to convince the Baron’s American fiancee (Rogers) to work as an informant for him, but before he can make any progress, Austria falls to the Germans and the Baron whisks her off to Czechoslovakia. Grant follows, but finds that every country they go comes under Nazi rule within a matter of days. But as they travel he slowly woos Rogers, turning her into an informant to help take down the sinister Baron.

While the stars (who would appear together again ten years later in Monkey Business) are well matched, for the most part Sheridan Gibney’s screenplay fluctuates awkwardly between screwball antics, weighty patriotism, and one truly misguided scene at a concentration camp. It feels unfair to compare to a complete masterpiece like To Be or Not to Be, but the way Lubitsch avoids with ease the same tonal traps McCarey falls into is hard to ignore—not to mention Once Upon a Honeymoon goes as far as to reuse a shot from Lubitsch’s film. It ultimately feels like Lubitsch specifically conceived a comedy about the Nazis, while McCarey conceived a comedy, then made it about the Nazis for the sake of timeliness. That’s not to say Once Upon a Honeymoon is without delights or genuinely affecting moments. But too often (and for too long; the film has no business nearly two hours) it stumbles in fundamental ways that feel far beneath the respected director who just five years earlier made the screwball classic The Awful Truth.

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For More on Once Upon a Honeymoon

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

References   [ + ]

1. Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 293.