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I Was a Male War Bride (Aug. 9, 1949)

I Was a Male War Bride
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Directed by Howard Hawks
20th Century-Fox

Here’s what I knew about I Was a Male War Bride before I watched it: It’s a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks. It’s the only Howard Hawks movie my cinephile friend Oskar doesn’t like very much. Cary Grant dresses in drag at the end.

Beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions, and I had a great time. I laughed more at I Was a Male War Bride than any comedy I’ve watched in the past few months.

I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of people not to unfavorably compare I Was a Male War Bride with Howard Hawks’s two previous screwball comedies with Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). Both films are widely acknowledged classics. Taken on its own merits, though, I think I Was a Male War Bride is great. It’s a really funny movie, with a wonderful blend of witty dialogue and physical comedy.

Ann Sheridan plays Catherine Gates, a lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and Cary Grant plays Henri Rochard, a captain in the French Army.

Capt. Rochard is an incorrigible skirt-chaser and Lt. Gates is a hard-nosed officer with a quick wit. When the film begins, they’ve already been paired on multiple missions, and have the easy romantic-comedy repartee of two bickering people who profess to hate each other but can’t get enough of each other.

The opening scene of the film mocks the military’s obsessive use of acronyms and initialisms, when Capt. Rochard is so caught up in making sense of abbreviations that he can’t decipher the door of the women’s lavatory. And the film as a whole mocks the endless layers of bureaucracy and red tape everyone in the military has to contend with.

I Was a Male War Bride is based on the memoirs of the real-life Henri Rochard, a Belgian who married an American Army nurse, which were published under the humorously verbose title I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress.

There’s a lot I loved about this film. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, with great gags and crisp dialogue that is frequently sexually suggestive, and Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan have wonderful chemistry.

My one problem with the film was that I could never accept Cary Grant as a Frenchman. Cary Grant is one of the all-time great screen stars, but he had two speeds: Comedy and Drama. He never altered his accent and barely ever changed his mannerisms. I wouldn’t have had trouble accepting him as a “French” military officer if it wasn’t so inextricably linked to the film’s plot. The film has a good deal of authenticity. Much of it was shot in Germany, and a lot of the throwaway dialogue is in German, so the fact that Grant doesn’t look French, doesn’t act French, and never speaks in French is really bizarre.

On the other hand, Cary Grant is perfect for this type of comedy, and I don’t think I Was a Male War Bride would have been a better film if his role had been played by Jean Gabin or Jacques François.

Grant and Sheridan

The final sequence with Grant in drag didn’t play as humorously for me as it probably did when the film first played in theaters. Seeing a popular male star dressed as a woman isn’t a novelty anymore, after movies like Tootsie (1982) and The Birdcage (1996). And this certainly wasn’t the first movie to feature a man in drag, as anyone who’s seen The Devil-Doll (1936) can attest.

The only thing funny about seeing Cary Grant in drag is that you’re seeing Cary Grant in drag. He plays a woman the same way he plays a Frenchman, only with a bit more discomfort.

But the scenes of him in drag take up a blessedly short amount of screen time, and didn’t diminish the overall good time I had watching this film. It’s a great comedy with great stars, and holds up really well. It was also 20th Century-Fox’s highest-grossing movie of 1949, and Howard Hawks’s third most financially successful film of all time, after Sergeant York (1941) and Red River (1948).

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (June 4, 1948)

I don’t know about you, but comedies like H.C. Potter’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House really stress me out.

When the subject of “things I could never laugh at” comes up, most people think of things like the death of a beloved family pet or ethnic cleansing, but while I don’t find either of those subjects fertile ground for comedy, one subject stands above all others as something I can never laugh at — chasing good money after bad.

I don’t know if Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is the first comedy in which most of the “comedy” involves someone making terrible decision after terrible decision and throwing vast sums of money into a disastrous project, but it’s one of the best-known and most well-loved.

The first movie like this I saw was the 1986 Tom Hanks “comedy” The Money Pit, which even as a kid I found stressful and unfunny.

The second was the Joe McDoakes “comedy” short So You Want to Move (1950), in which every bad decision the main character makes and every accident he has is flashed on screen in dollar amounts. As the one-reeler continues, and he drops things and crashes into things, his financial responsibility grows and grows. As an argument for using professional movers, So You Want to Move is a persuasive infomercial, but as a comedy it’s totally devoid of laughs. At least for me.

At least Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is enjoyable in the early going, and stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, who previously starred together in Wings in the Dark (1935) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and who are both attractive, charming, and a lot of fun to watch.

Grant plays Jim Blandings, a college graduate who lives in Manhattan, works in advertising, and makes about $15,000 a year. We learn all this from the film’s omniscient narrator, who also calls Mr. Blandings a “modern-day cliff dweller,” since he lives in a high-rise apartment building with his beautiful wife Muriel (Myrna Loy), their two daughters, and their housekeeper Gussie (Louise Beavers).

Here’s a case where inflation doesn’t tell you everything, since $15,000 is roughly $145,000 in 2012 dollars, but I don’t think even that salary today would be nearly enough to support a wife who doesn’t work, two kids in private school, and a Manhattan apartment big enough to fit a family and a live-in servant.

Granted, the Blandings live in cramped quarters. Everything in their apartment is full to bursting and ready to explode like Fibber McGee’s hall closet, and as the narrator tells us, “just getting shaved in the morning entitles a man to the Purple Heart.” But that’s just Manhattan living, folks. Even for the relatively well-to-do.

One day Mr. Blandings is enticed by a brochure from a Connecticut real estate firm that encourages him to “trade city soot for sylvan charm.”

I can’t even talk about what happens next. It’s just too painful.

I will say this, however. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was funny enough to entertain even someone like me, and Mr. Blandings is presented as just enough of a screwball idiot to make his terrible decisions a little easier to laugh at. For instance, when his lawyer Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) asks what his engineer said about the foundation of the house he just purchased, Mr. Blandings responds, “Who needs engineers? This isn’t a train, you know.”

The Bishop’s Wife (Dec. 9, 1947)

Some people will tell you that movies made by committee are what’s wrong with Hollywood.

They’re wrong. Movies made by committee have always been around, and like everything else made by committee, they occasionally turn out just fine.

Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife, for instance, is a sweet little Christmas confection. It won’t fill you up, and it will possibly leave you wanting more, but for what it is, it’s delicious.

The original director was William A. Seiter, but producer Samuel Goldwyn didn’t care for what he came up with, so he replaced him with Henry Koster. (Koster’s version had its own problems, so Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett made some uncredited revisions to the script.)

The biggest change from Seiter’s version was that David Niven and Cary Grant switched roles, but there were several other changes. For one, Teresa Wright — who originally played the bishop’s wife — was replaced by Loretta Young.

But Niven and Grant’s role-switching is the big change that everyone talks about, and with good reason.

The priggish but always likable Niven is perfect as Henry Brougham, the Episcopal bishop whose cathedral-building project is destroying his personal life, and Grant is perfect as Dudley, the angel who’s sent to put Henry back on the right track.

It’s as difficult for me to imagine anyone but the ageless and effortlessly charming Grant as Dudley as it is for me to imagine anyone but Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.

Dudley shows up on earth in answer to Henry’s prayer for guidance, but he’s not an unearthly angel who waves a magic wand that sets everything right. While he can move objects with his mind, stop busy traffic on Madison Avenue while helping a blind man cross the street, and presumably do pretty much anything he wants, he mostly just puts ideas in people’s minds … good ideas that they end up thinking are their own.

Dudley is also not an ethereal, androgynous angel whose feet never touch the ground. He’s Cary Freakin’ Grant, and his good lucks and charm have quite an effect on Henry’s neglected wife Julia (Loretta Young). One afternoon — after Henry’s forced to cancel yet another date with his wife due to his work on the cathedral — Dudley takes her to lunch at Michel’s, the French restaurant where Henry proposed to her.

After Dudley orders, Julia tells him, “You speak French beautifully.”

“I’ve had quite a bit of work to do in Paris,” Dudley responds.

And when Dudley takes Julia’s hand to read her palm, oh how the old bluenose biddies tut-tut.

The Bishop’s Wife takes place around Christmas, and it’s a wonderful holiday film. It’s also an excellent comedy, even though its broadly humorous moments are rare. Mostly its just a heartwarming, romantic, and delightful film.

And the scene in which Dudley takes Julia ice-skating and uses his magical powers to make them both glide around the ice like Olympic champions is one of the most enjoyable bits I’ve seen in a long, long time.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Sept. 1, 1947)

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best original screenplay at the 20th Academy Awards in 1948, beating out the scripts for more “serious” fare like Body and Soul, A Double Life, Monsieur Verdoux, and Sciuscià (Shoeshine).

But just because its win was surprising doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve to win. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a very funny film. It’s a latter-day screwball comedy about a handsome artist who is forced — by court order, no less — to date a teenage girl.

Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay treats those jumpin’ and jivin’ post-war kids with affection rather than bemusement or contempt, and he has a keen understanding of the ways teenagers try to act like adults, and how they unwittingly fail.

The dialogue might not be a completely accurate evocation of the way real bobby-soxers and their jalopy-driving boyfriends actually talked (did any kid before this movie came out actually say that they felt “sklonklish”?), but the characterizations all feel right.

Former child star Shirley Temple — all grown up (sort of) — plays the bobby-soxer of the title, a 17-year-old high school student named Susan who lives with her older sister. Her older sister just happens to be a judge, and when the film begins, the Honorable Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy) is presiding over a case involving a kerfuffle at a nightclub between a couple of brassy gals over the affections of charming artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant).

Margaret and Susan’s parents are dead, so Margaret is as much of a mother to Susan as she is a big sister. After the initial courtroom scene, the stage is set for the sparks of disapproval to fly as soon as Margaret learns that the object of her little sister’s affection is the same Lothario she saw in court.

Most of the humor in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer comes from the fact that Richard has absolutely no desire to be with Susan, but is ordered by the court, under the recommendation of a psychologist, to take her out on dates so his mature-man forbidden fruit will sooner wither and die, and she’ll go back to her sweet, somewhat dumb high school boyfriend, Jerry (Johnny Sands).

Susan is mature for her age, but she’s still a 17-year-old. Watching Cary Grant suffer through taking her to Sunset High School basketball games and dates at the ice cream shop are some of the funniest bits I’ve seen in a long time.

Cary Grant — no stranger to screwball comedies — has an arch, deadpan comic style that’s perfectly suited to the material. Temple is really great in this movie, too. Like Deanna Durbin, she was an impossibly cute child star who blossomed into an engaging adult performer without missing a beat. And Myrna Loy is wonderful to watch, as always. It doesn’t matter that she was old enough to be Temple’s mother when she made this movie. She barely looks a decade older, and she matches Cary Grant beat for beat in all their scenes together.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a great comedy that stands the test of time.

Notorious (Sept. 6, 1946)

Notorious
Notorious (1946)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
RKO Radio Pictures

Notorious was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film to star Ingrid Bergman. Like the first, Spellbound (1945), it’s a perfect marriage of director and star. Later in his career, Hitchcock had a penchant for casting blond ice queens like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, so it’s easy to forget how good he and the brown-haired Bergman were when they worked together.

In Notorious, Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American man convicted of spying for the Nazis. As soon as the trial is over, she throws a little party in her Miami bungalow and gets good and blotto. The sense of intimacy that Bergman creates in this scene is remarkable. She doesn’t slur her words or make a fool of herself, but through her drunken ramblings she reveals some of her innermost thoughts.

Not so with the handsome stranger (Cary Grant) who sits alone at her party. He remains an enigma for awhile. After she throws everyone else out, she takes him out for some good old fashioned drunk driving. (And all the herky-jerky rear projection stuff made me feel a little inebriated, too.) When a motorcycle cop pulls her over, the stranger flashes a badge of some kind, and the cop lets them go. Alicia’s mood sours. She hates policemen.

Alicia learns that this handsome stranger’s name is Devlin, and he’s a government agent. He has listened to the recordings of conversations she had with her father, and knows that she is loyal to the United States, despite her anger about his imprisonment. Because of her father’s espionage work against America, however, she is the perfect person to infiltrate a group of Nazis who fled to Brazil after the war.

While waiting to begin her assignment in Rio de Janeiro, she falls in love with Devlin. It happens — as these things tend to in the movies — quickly and with little explanation. Devlin seems to love her, too, but when it comes time to put her into the field he is all business. And since part of her assignment is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of her father’s and a member of the Nazi inner circle in Rio, Devlin chooses duty over love, and is cold enough to her that she eventually accepts Alex’s proposal of marriage.

Needless to say, living with a man she doesn’t love and his creepy, controlling mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) in a mansion in Rio, surrounded by Nazis who think nothing of killing traitors, is a dangerous proposition for poor Alicia, especially since her romance with Devlin continues to grow, despite both of their efforts to quell their own feelings.

Ingrid Bergman

Unlike Spellbound, which had all manner of baroque, Freudian lunacy, Notorious is an elegant and understated picture. The espionage plot isn’t overcomplicated, and it’s not really the focus of the movie. The love triangle is, as well as all the suspense and danger related to it. A sequence at one of Alex’s parties, in which Alicia and Devlin pass a key from hand to hand, achieves greatest emotional significance and more suspense than a complicated cryptography system or a series of twists and double-crosses ever could.

As a pure cinematic experience, I prefer Spellbound, despite — or perhaps because of — its craziness. Notorious is still a great movie, and Cary Grant is a less inert leading man than Gregory Peck. Ingrid Bergman is stunningly beautiful in this film, too. It’s not just the contours of her face, which are lovingly illuminated by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, it’s her intelligence and openness, and an ineffable quality of vulnerability.

Notorious was a critical and commercial success, and one of the biggest hits of 1946. Claude Rains was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor and Ben Hecht was nominated for best original screenplay, although neither won.

Night and Day (Aug. 3, 1946)

If you’re looking for a biopic about Cole Porter that tells the real story of his life, Michael Curtiz’s Night and Day is not for you. If, however, you’re merely looking for a sumptuous Technicolor musical extravaganza starring Cary Grant with great songs throughout, then it fits the bill.

The film was made with Porter’s supervision and full approval, so failures early in his career are blamed on everything but mediocre songwriting and production, and questions about his sexuality are never addressed.

The more recent Porter biopic, De-Lovely (2004), which starred Kevin Kline, implied that he was bisexual, but plenty of other sources claim he was gay, which makes more sense. His 35-year marriage to Linda Thomas was successful, if sexless, but all that means is that the two shared a genuine friendship and enjoyed each other’s company. Also, the seamier details of Porter’s parties during his time in Paris in 1917 and 1918 — “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs” — wouldn’t have been appropriate material for a Hollywood production in the ’40s, even if Porter had been completely open about them.

Porter was an undeniably great songwriter — and one of the few Tin Pan Alley composers to write both music and lyrics — but even here the movie sanitizes things, since Porter’s lyrics were notoriously risqué. For instance, when the song “Let’s Do It” is played, you’ll heard about how “educated fleas” do it, but nothing about how roosters do it “with a doodle and a cock.” And musically, Ray Heindorf’s orchestrations tend toward the saccharine. By the end of the picture I felt as if I’d heard the same piece played over and over again.

Some of the whitewashing in Night and Day is purely ridiculous, though. Why was Porter’s first Broadway production, See America First, which was written with his Yale classmate Monty Woolley, a flop? Not because it was a critical disaster, according to this movie, but because the opening night crowd was drawn out into the streets by late-edition newspapers carrying word of the Lusitania sinking. Never mind that in real life, the New York American called the play a “high-class college show played partly by professionals.” In the world of Night and Day its failure was wholly due to a disaster outside of Woolley and Porter’s control. (Incidentally, Woolley plays himself in Night and Day, but perhaps owing to his age, his character is recast as one of Porter’s Yale professors instead of his contemporary.)

While there is no intimation that Porter may have ever produced mediocre work, there are gay undertones in the picture, if you care to look for them. Alexis Smith as Porter’s wife Linda spends a lot of the film looking dissatisfied and neglected. And the dramatic arc hits its climax at the 90-minute mark when Cole and Linda are pulled apart by the pressures of success. “You’ve put me in a small corner of your life, and every once in awhile you turn around and smile at me,” she tearfully tells him. In the film, their marital difficulties are resolved, but in an unconvincing, wordless final scene.

While the drama of Night and Day may be dishonest, the music is not, and it’s a great-looking movie.

Without Reservations (May 13, 1946)

Mervyn LeRoy’s Without Reservations is the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that frequently has adjectives like “sparkling” and “breezy” attached to it. It’s also the last film in which John Wayne appeared as one of the leads but did not receive top billing. Claudette Colbert’s star power still shone pretty brightly in 1946.

I thought that LeRoy’s previous film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), was one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen, so I was looking forward to seeing Without Reservations, but found it mediocre. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

In the film, Colbert plays Christopher “Kit” Madden, a sort of socially progressive version of Ayn Rand. Her novel Here Is Tomorrow is a runaway best-seller, and is the one book it seems that everyone in post-war America has read. When the film begins, Kit is arguing with film producer Henry Baldwin (Thurston Hall), who is unable to fulfill his promise to secure Cary Grant for the part of Mark Winston, the protagonist of Here Is Tomorrow. Kit won’t consider making the picture without Cary Grant, and begins drafting a letter while traveling by train that will stop production of the film. Anyone who’s been paying attention, however, will notice that the heroic painting of Mark Winston on the cover of her novel looks an awful lot like John Wayne, and will probably be able to predict what will happen next.

Sure enough, Kit meets two Marine pilots, Rusty Thomas (John Wayne) and Dink Watson (Don DeFore), on the train. As soon as she lays her eyes on Rusty, she realizes he’s perfect for the role of Mark Winston, and immediately begins to rewrite her letter. Since she introduces herself only as “Kit,” and the novel was published under her full name, Dink and Rusty don’t realize that she’s the most popular author in America. When she asks Rusty what he thinks of the novel Here Is Tomorrow he rips into it with abandon. His main complaint seems to be that the romance in the novel is unconvincing. Mark Winston, a progressive with grand plans to remake America, is chased around by a woman, but they can’t make things work because she’s a political reactionary.

In reality, of course, it’s Kit who’s the progressive (Mark Winston is merely her mouthpiece) and Rusty who’s the reactionary. Without Reservations is based on the novel Thanks, God! I’ll Take It From Here, by Jane Allen and Mae Livingston. I haven’t read the novel, but if the film is in any way faithful to its source material, the title comes from a speech Rusty makes about the first men in America. According to Rusty, no amount of political disagreement is enough to keep a man and a woman apart if they’re hot for each other. (Can you sense, yet, where the film might be heading?)

Angry about the grand plan laid out for society in Here Is Tomorrow, Rusty says to Kit, “Have you ever heard of some fellows who first came over to this country? You know what they found? They found a howling wilderness, where summer’s too hot and winter’s freezing. And they also found some unpleasant little characters who painted their faces. Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age? For their crops? For their homes? They did not. They looked at the land and the forest and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids, and their houses. And then they looked up at the sky and they said, ‘Thanks, God. We’ll take it from here.’”

Watching the film in 2010, I found it hard to believe that no one from the Tea Party movement has latched onto this scene and played it on JumboTrons across the country, since its simplistic vision of America’s beginnings and total opposition to the federal government and even the most basic of social programs seem so close to that movement’s weltanshauung. Not to mention that the speech is delivered as only John Wayne can.

There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, and Wayne and Colbert have decent chemistry, even though he’s not that well suited to playing a romantic lead, especially in a comedy. If Without Reservations had kept up the momentum it establishes in its first couple of acts, I would have really liked it. Unfortunately, it goes off the rails and becomes a meandering road movie.

But not before Rusty, Kit, and Dink run afoul of one of the Pullman porters when they stack up the tables in the club car and have Kit “fly a plane” with a stand-up ashtray for a yoke. The drunken Kit eventually falls over, knocking everything to the ground. Like a bunch of goons, they run off, leaving the mess for one of the porters to clean up while they hide in one of the sleeping compartments (see the film’s poster above).

Once on the road, they buy a flashy sports car from its exasperated owner, and it constantly breaks down. They stay with a colorful Mexican family with a hot and spicy daughter named Dolores (Dona Drake) and a fiery patriarch, Señor Ortega (Frank Puglia), who teaches Kit a few things about love, namely how brutal, selfish, and turbulent it is, and should be. “Love and violence walk hand in hand, señorita!” he says.

The strangest thing about Without Reservations is that Colbert and Wayne do not appear in the same scene at any point during the last act of the film. Kit galivants around Hollywood with a series of leading men in an effort to make Rusty jealous, and the viewer is treated to cameos by Cary Grant (playing himself) and Raymond Burr (still young and trim enough to play an up-and-coming leading man named “Paul Gill”). In these sequences it makes sense for Colbert and Wayne to not appear together, since they’re in different physical locations, but when Rusty finally gives in and appears on Kit’s doorstep, we hear him ringing her doorbell and see her run out of her bedroom downstairs to let him in, but the camera pans right and stops and lingers on a shot of her bed as we hear her greet him off screen. Fade to black. It’s about as subtle as a train going into a tunnel.

I know there are legions of people who think Colbert was the epitome of class, beauty, and charm, but I found her unappealing in this film. With her little stick body, hunched shoulders, spastic movements, short hair in a tight perm, and heavy makeup, she looked to me like an eighty-year old woman with a forty-year old face.

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