Based on the play of the the same name written by Marguerite Vale Veiller, whose nom de plume was Martin Vale, The Two Mrs Carrolls was shot in 1945, but only released in 1947, when Humphrey Bogart was a firm box office draw after such films as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Big Sleep. However, not even Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck’s box office appeal could make The Two Mrs Carrolls a hit. Contemporary and modern critics both consider Bogart to have been miscast and Stanwyck’s performance to be uneven.
Stanwyck apparently agreed to do the film out of boredom, because her husband at the time, Robert Taylor, was still oversees due to World War II; and because she was good friends with the film’s director, Peter Godfrey, who had also directed her in Christmas in Connecticut.
Neither Bogart nor Stanwyck were the first choice for their respective roles, with Ida Lupino and Bette Davis originally being considered for the part of Sally, and Zachary Scott and Paul Henreid being considered for the role of Geoffrey. Austro-Hungarian actress Elisabeth Bergner had starred as Sally on Broadway, and won critical acclaim for her portrayal. During the play’s run, Bergner had apparently met a young woman, who would go onto become Bergner’s protege and then her understudy in the play. Bergner’s relationship with the young actress would reportedly be the inspiration for Mary Orr’s short story The Wisdom of Eve, which was adapted as All About Eve starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter.
The film opens in Scotland, with Geoffrey (played by Humprey Bogart) and Sally (played by Barbara Stanwyck) sitting next to a stream whilst Geoffrey sketches Sally’s portrait. He playfully chastises her for constantly interrupting him, before she cheerfully informs him that this is their two week anniversary.
When it starts raining, Sally and Geoffrey run to a small cave before Geoffrey runs back to get his case from a local guide. Sally finds an unmailed letter that has fallen out of Geoffrey’s coat. The letter is addressed to a Mrs Carroll, and Sally is distraught to realise that Geoffrey is married. Geoffrey tries to convince Sally that he loves her, and that he and his wife’s marriage is over, but Sally runs away from him.
It then cuts to Geoffrey buying something from a chemist, and signing the chemist’s customer ledger using an assumed name. When he returns home, he and his daughter, Bea, who is incredibly mature for a child and looks after her ill mother; look at the portrait he has painted of his wife. In the portrait, she is represented as the Angel of Death.
Geoffrey goes to the kitchen to prepare his wife’s milk, and seems to place what he had bought at the chemist in the milk. Before taking it into his wife’s room, he tells Bea that he will be sending her to a private school, which Bea is quite happy about.
Sometime later, Charles “Penny” Pennington, a London Lawyer, visits Sally. Sally is now the second Mrs Carroll. She and Penny were once engaged, but Penny doesn’t seem bitter about Sally’s marital status, although he seems to still be in love with her.
Geoffrey is frustrated by a lack of inspiration for his painting, and refuses to have tea with Penny and his clients, Mrs and Miss Latham, before Sally gives him a kiss. Penny’s clients, Cecily Latham and her mother, are superior and haughty, dismissing Sally’s garden as inferior. Cecily openly expresses her interest in Geoffrey, and is rude to Sally. She wants Geoffrey to paint her portrait, but Geoffrey is dismissive. When they are alone, Cecily is forthright in her declaration of her attraction to Geoffrey, but he is unimpressed. After the Lathams and Penny leave, Geoffrey is disturbed when he sees the chemist in his garden.
The Carrolls and the Lathams go to the horse races together, where Cecily and Geoffrey hold hands whilst Sally is distracted her horse winning the race. Geoffrey then meets the chemist, Blagdon, and gives him blackmail money.
It then cuts to Sally, who has been ill for three weeks, and has not been properly diagnosed by a bumbling doctor, Dr Tuttle (played by Nigel Bruce). Geoffrey says that he wants to send Sally to another doctor, but then changes his mind and claims that he was only “testing” Dr Tuttle.
After Dr Tuttle leaves, Geoffrey becomes upset when Bea talks about reading that Van Gogh went insane towards the end of his life. Cecily suddenly enters the study via the doors leading from the garden, and after Bea leaves the room, it becomes clear that Cecily and Geoffrey are having a full blown affair.
Cecily says that she’s going to Rio, which angers Geoffrey, who’s demands that she stay with him always. Cecily replies that she is frustrated by their affair and wants Geoffrey to leave Sally and go to Rio with her. Geoffrey snaps and tells her to leave. He then becomes incensed by the constant, loud ringing of the church bells.
Blagdon is still blackmailing Geoffrey, and phones the house to demand more money. After Geoffrey talks to the chemist on the phone, he tells Bea that he is sending her to a prestigious private school for girls, which Bea is thrilled about.
Sally decides to leave her room, and goes downstairs in order to prepare for a dinner party that she and Geoffrey are hosting. After telling Geoffrey who their dinner guests will be, she tells Geoffrey that she knows that Cecily loves him, but it is clear that she isn’t aware that Geoffrey and Cecily are having an affair. Geoffrey then tells Sally that he needs to go to London, but he lies about his reason for doing so, as he doesn’t want Sally to know about Blagdon’s ongoing blackmail.
After Geoffrey has left, Sally finds the kind of rose that Cecily always wears in the study, and realises that the younger woman and Geoffrey are having an affair. She then finds out that Bea is leaving for school almost immediately. Through a subsequent talk with her stepdaughter, she learns that despite Geoffrey’s claim that his first wife was an invalid of many years, she only became ill after Geoffrey and Sally met. And that Mrs Carroll was actually a very active woman before she suddenly became ill. The illness that killed her had exactly the same symptoms as Sally’s.
It suddenly dawns on Sally that Geoffrey is poisoning her as he did his first wife, and that he is doing so because he wants to be with Cecily, as he had wanted to be with Sally before. Sally is distraught and sobs in her room as she tries to come to grips with what she knows to be her husband’s true nature.
In London, Geoffrey murders Blagdon with a pestle, and tries to make it look like he was killed by a burglar. He is almost seen by a policeman whilst trying to leave the shop.
Back at the house, Sally and Bea look at Geoffrey’s painting of Sally, which neither of them has seen before. Bea is horrified, and Sally faints after looking at it. Geoffrey has painted her as the Angel of Death, too.
Everyone arrives for dinner, and after Dr Tuttle natters on about a local burglar potentially being the Yorkshire Strangler; Penny quietly warns Cecily against trying to break up Geoffrey and Sally’s marriage. Cecily is entirely unmoved and nasty about Sally’s health problems.
When Geoffrey returns from London, after the dinner party is already over, he tells Cecily that he has decided to go to Rio with her. She is delighted, but must hide her excitement. Penny is the only one who seems concerned about Sally’s declining health, and distracted mental state during dinner, and is reluctant to leave.
Bea then leaves for school. Whilst Geoffrey is out, Sally tries to phone Penny, but he doesn’t answer his phone as he is not home yet. Geoffrey then tries to give Sally another dose of poisoned milk, but she throws it out of the window while he is answering the phone. Sally then tells him that she is going to bed, before she takes Penny’s gun with her without Geoffrey seeing.
When Sally is upstairs, Geoffrey hears a window banging. When he goes to latch it, he sees that Sally threw the milk out of the window, as the storm outside had caused it to blow back onto the windowsill and floor. He goes completely insane, and then decides to murder his wife. But he formulates a plan to make it look as if Sally has been throttled by the Yorkshire Strangler.
He tries to get into Sally’s room, and when she won’t open the door, he disconnects the phone-line, causing Sally and Penny to be cut off after she asks him to call the police. Sally panics before Geoffrey breaks into her room through the window. Sally points the gun at him, but he overpowers her and attempts to strangle her. However, Sally survives.
The police arrive, along with Penny, and arrest Geoffrey, who tries to explain his motives for trying to kill a weeping Sally, and offers them a glass of milk.
The Two Mrs Carrolls is a solid menaced woman noir in the vein of Sudden Fear and Sorry, Wrong Number, and while it isn’t quite up to the standards of those two films, it is still enjoyable. I cannot agree with Barbara Stanwyck’s biographer, Dan Callahan, who felt that there was nothing redeeming about the film, and heavily criticised both the acting and the direction.
It is true that Stanwyck would perfect her portrayal of the menaced woman in Sorry, Wrong Number, but her acting in The Two Mrs Carrolls is competent and enjoyable. Her shift from being the happy, unaware wife to the victim desperately trying to stop her husband from murdering her, is believable. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which she tries to dispose of the poisoned milk without being seen, as well as when she points the gun at Geoffrey. Both of those scenes could have been ridiculous with a less skilled actress in the part, especially because of their sharp tonal shift.
Humphrey Bogart is perhaps not the first person you may think of for the part of Geoffrey, and he is more suited to roles such as Rick Blaine and Frank McCloud; but I would not go so far as to say that he is miscast in the part. He does not quite manage to capture the quiet menace that someone like Cary Grant or Laurence Olivier may have brought to the role, but he is definitely menacing enough to be make the viewer feel scared for Sally. The scene in which he makes Cecily leave his house is particularly effective. Although his performance perhaps weakens when he is called on to show his bowing to complete insanity, he shows his capacity as a great actor in the end scene when he is trying to explain his motivation for murdering his first wife and trying to murder his second.
The actress who I feel gives an excellent performance is Ann Carter as Bea. In the three films I’ve seen her in, The Two Mrs Carrolls, The Curse of the Cat of People and And Now Tomorrow, she always give an assured, mature performance. There is something about her face that belies her age, and her eyes have a haunted quality, which was perfect for this film. The fact that she is memorable opposite Bogart and Stanwyck is enough of a feat on its own, but the fact that she holds her own in every scene she is in with all of the adult actors, is wonderful. Her performance in the film manages to combine the worldliness of an old soul and a young child, who has lost her mother and is at risk of losing her stepmother, too.
Overall, I don’t think the harsh criticism levelled at the film is, or was, warranted. While it may not be as competent in its execution and denouement as Suspicion, Sudden Fear or Sorry, Wrong Number, it is still a well made and enjoyable film, with solid performances from the entire cast.
The Story Behind the Locked Studio Door
This is the only film that Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart appeared in together
Bogart refused to wear an artist’s smock, as he felt that it would emasculate him. When he found a smock and beret with a tassel in his wardrobe, he was extremely angry, before finding out that it was a practical joke staged by Stanwyck
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were married during the making of the film, which purportedly caused issues for Bogart in terms of getting into the headspace of his character