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Monday, July 05, 2010

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.

Go HERE for a sentimental re-visit with Government Girl and what it meant to fans in 1943.


Anonymous Kevin K. said...

It's actually comforting to know that studios were equally adept at making lousy movies, perhaps deliberately, then as now. Churn 'em out, count the receipts...

9:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, I wish you would shine the Greenbriar spotlight on a similar-themed film of the same era that is deserving of the McElwee treatment, George Stevens' The More the Merrier! This film has become a constant source of renewed enjoyment to me with each (frequent) revisit. As a result, I have become totally enamored with Jean Arthur (never much cared for her in her earlier Capra efforts). But the biggest revelation is Joel McCrea who, in my own estimation, out "Grants" Cary!

11:12 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Patrick, I haven't seen "The More the Merrier" in a long time, though I do remember liking it. The one I'd want to write about somewhere down the line, if only Universal would release it or TCM would show it, is "Standing Room Only," which I consider to be one of the best comedies of the war.

12:17 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Never having seen -- indeed, scarcely heard of -- Government Girl, I was surprised when I checked IMDB for the behind-the-camera team: Adela Rogers St. John? Budd Schulberg? And Dudley Nichols directing? (Well, at least that kind of makes sense; Nichols always struck me as pretty humorless.)

And wow, Olivia de Havilland and Anne Shirley in the same movie? How did audiences tell them apart?

2:16 PM  
Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Just standing next to Stan Laurel makes de Havilland funny.

I'm going to be the dissenting opinion on The More the Merrier. It has its reputation (which is somewhat inflated, IMO) but it's really only funny for about its first half and then it sinks fast afterward. (And besides...Charles Coburn should have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Devil and Miss Jones.) I'm much more likely to champion Stevens' The Talk of the Town.

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, are you offering "Government Girl" as an example of RKO Radio's "Showmanship not Genius" approach, carried over from your just-previous Orson Welles two-fer? Going just by the graphic (in the image where the lovely Olivia has her hands on her hips), I would say they spelled "Capitol" incorrectly!--Mark H

8:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hadn't thought of that carry-over, Mark, but yes --- I'd say "Government Girl' is a prime example of Showmanship In Place Of Genius at RKO. No doubt they'd have cited its profits as evidence that the new policy worked.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Certainly Sonny Tufts didn't take himself too serious, as witnessed a generation later when he went along with his name being used as a running gag on ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN.

Of course, Sonny didn't NEED Hollywood...he came from an well-off old-line Boston family. In fact, the Tufts name resides on among other things, the library in the town I grew up and a major university in the area (where my sister taught for a period).

4:31 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

OK John how but a follow up post to an equally inane film "The Bride Came C.O.D." I remember as a kid this was constantly on the late show and it seemed to involve Bette Davis and Jimmy Cagney in a so called comedy where the idea of funny was to have them sitting in cactus plants in the middle of the desert. No wonder they were constantly taking Warner's to court over their contracts.

8:46 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Among Washington wartime comedies, don't forget "The Doughgirls," where Eve Arden steals the show as a Soviet sharpshooter who, for some reason, is in D.C. during WWII. She was so funny in the role that it probably helped her avoid getting called before HUAC later that decade.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

I'm not surprised to hear that "Government Girl" drew audiences for good box office - Laurel & Hardy's 1944 MGM film "Nothing But Trouble" - my least favorite of the duo's feature films and a decidedly weak (and in some scenes dreary) effort despite the first few pleasant moments - was actually their all-time biggest moneymaker (of course I'm not telling John anything he doesn't already know - after all, he's theone who supplied the box office figures for "Trouble" to Scott MacGillvray for Scott's revised "Laurel & Hardy: from the Forties Forward" tome). That one had quite the contrivance - there's a "servant shortage" due to the war! Enter wealthy dowager Mary Boland to snatch up butler Stan and chef Ollie from the employment agency. If you haven't seen it, you don't want to know the rest. If you do, you're on your own...

8:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

VP, I've never seen "The Doughgirls." Based on your comments, maybe I should.

My good friend Dan Mercer e-mailed some observations about Sonny Tufts and olivia de Havilland:

Sonny Tufts may have been nothing much as an actor, but when I saw William Haines for the first time in one his early talkies--I believe it was Fast Life--there was a distinct resemblance between the two. They were big attractive men who apparently didn't feel the need to really keep themselves in shape, with a bawling, sloppy way of speaking, as though to suggest an ease or toughness that really wasn't there. Billy never really suggested an abiding interest in his leading lady, but Sonny seemed uninterested as well, though, one hopes, for other reasons. Possibly he and Olivia just didn't hit it off. As a nubile young ingenue, Errol Flynn's appreciation of her is readily understood. By this point, however, she had hardened somewhat, a wax replica of what once was fresh and natural; rather as her sister, did, in fact. At any rate, she was no more interested in him than in Government Girl, a nothing film to get out of the way before she want on to better things. But were they really better? I watched The Snake Pit the other night and found it insufferable in the pat assumptions it made about mental illness or the antiseptic way it presented squalor. From time to time you noticed a portrait of St. Sigmund on a wall, casting a baleful glance over the proceedings. Olivia seemed no less lost in her final, redemptive interview with the staff than she had at the beginning, unless they were meant to be convinced by her insipid parroting of the then-current jargon of psychoanalysis that she was cured. For those in the audience not so sure, there would be a cut to a Leo Genn twisting a smile around his pipe stem, like an indulgent father hearing his five-year old daughter recite her ABCs. There was also The Heiress, however, something decidely better on all counts.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What actor ever got called before HUAC for having played a Russian in a movie?

1:33 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

I would like to cast a dissenting vote in favor of Laurel and Hardy's "Nothing But Trouble". I had dreary memories of it from childhood, but I've watched it several times recently and was rather enchanted by it. Granted it could be a whole lot better and needed a little "gagging" here and there, but on the whole, all things considered, I find it rather charming...

11:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, you've made me want to get out "Nothing But Trouble" and watch it again. There's been a lot of reappraisal of late titles among classic comedians' output. All of are worth another go, and most play better than we'd expect.

10:02 AM  

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