Washington Not-So Merry Go Round
Let's say I'm in Paris and Olivia DeHavilland's asked me by for a spot of tea (she just turned 94, by the way). Rather than ask about Errol Flynn or Gone With The Wind, I zero in on Sonny Tufts and Government Girl. Olivia's automatic response mechanism goes on the fritz and she's speechless. What would the lady remember about this obscurity done under protest sixty-seven years ago? TCM played Government Girl last week and will again on July 12. Watch it and know that Hollywood rationed good movies during WWII surely as the rest did coffee and sugar. Was Daryl Zanuck and certain directors (John Ford among them) right in saying the industry went thoroughly to dogs while they were away in uniform? Olivia de Havilland had been loaned by home studio Warner Bros. to David Selznick, who then transferred his lease to RKO for this would-be comedy in 1943. De Havilland spent breaks on Government Girl preparing a lawsuit against WB to abrogate the contract she called enslavement. Was this distraction cause of a performance substituting mugging for mirth, with result you'd be charitable to call comedic? Critics and trade knew Government Girl was a barker, but customers turned out anyway. RKO's $716,000 spent on the negative brought back two million worldwide thanks to upended times when theatres ran all night and misfires claimed reward same as features we'd call good. Government Girl is a time capsule so topical you need back issues of The Washington Post to stay even with it, like a newsreel with a barely discernible storyline. Watch and glean plenty about life and circumstances around our nation's capital during wartime, then wonder why modern instructors don't use documents like Government Girl to show what DC was like then (oops ... nearly forgot ... no one teaches history anymore). Comedy bad to a point of sublimity amounts to icing on this fallen cake.
There was a brace of wartime laffers about housing shortage in Washington. Anyone going there knew there were no rooms to let. Audiences got saucy fun out of men and women fighting over sleep space and possibility they'd have to share (like in The More The Merrier). If you were Tyrone Power giving up a suite to Anne Baxter in Crash Dive, then naturally she'd be expected to slide over for company. Ten women to one man was a scintillating prospect for both sexes, a real Sadie Hawkins homefront that movies loved exploring. Even food shortages gained erotic currency, as witness Anne Shirley's arousal over a pair of beefsteaks she consumes in Government Girl. Pictures made for the moment are pleasurable in ways they never contemplated then. We'd call a recurring situation of a newly married couple desperately seeking rooms for consummation labored and unduly repetitive, but what about patrons in 1943 who'd encountered that very snafu on their own rushed wedding days? These crowds knew realities we don't, so were all in on jokes we don't fully get. It's to them Government Girl spoke, clumsily perhaps, of shared experience and ways of life disrupted by a war they preferred laughing about to worrying over.
Dumb comedies sometimes make up in energy what they lack in inspiration. There's lots to enjoy in Government Girl once you surrender to its assinity. A free-wheeling motorcycle careens past Washington sites of interest thanks to a second-unit filming on-location, a welcome city tour circa 1943 impeded but mildly by Olivia de Havilland and Sonny Tufts gesticulating against a process screen. We get pratfalls aplenty and Olivia skids often across floors in stocking feet. There occurs a run in her nylon at one point and you almost hear wartime women groan with empathy. De Havilland forces fun throughout Government Girl (a drunk scene she effects is like application of bamboo stalks). Even Preston Sturges would have been hard put to bleed humor from this stone. Was Olivia hardened by Warner ultimatums arriving daily? Laugh, damn you all! is the mandate she delivers, yet somehow that endears me to her miscast struggle and lends de Havilland's slapsticking a kind of tenacious grandeur. Her mood couldn't have been enhanced by co-star Sonny Tufts, a flash still sizzling in the pan when the two were co-starred. He was 4-F and just off So Proudly We Hail at Paramount, an aw-shucks I'm no actor sort that glowed briefly while real stars were off fighting. Sonny tippled lots and knew pics he made were junk. Driving by marquees bearing his name, the big galoot wanted to stop and warn patrons against going inside. His disdain for Government Girl was at least the equal of de Havilland's. Chemistry the two share is summed up by a running gag where they throw darts at cartooned blow-ups of Hitler and Tojo. At moments like this, Olivia may well have considered chucking the whole actress thing and heading back to secretarial school. She and Sonny's clinch at the fade is about as credible as Bugs burying the hatchet with Daffy.