Oct 21, 2014
On DVD: Olivia deHavilland Goes Screwball in Government Girl (1943)
As a screwball comedy, Government Girl misses the mark, but while the laughs never come when they seem to be prompted, I was never bored watching this film. It's not exactly good, it definitely isn't bad, or even so bad it's good. Perhaps the best description is odd.
Olivia de Havilland is Elizabeth "Smokey" Allard, a secretary working for the US in packed-to-the-gills World War II era Washington. Assigned to an ambitious munitions manufacturer (Sonny Tufts) with plenty of business savvy, but no knack for handling government red tape, she helps him navigate D.C. politics and falls in love. Given the lackluster, and sometimes unpleasantly aggressive attitudes of her other suitors, you can't blame her.
Smokey also tries to find a private room for her perky roommate May (Anne Shirley) and her new husband, a sergeant who she married on his leave, and tries to manage the slights of Agnes Moorehead as a breezily snooty D.C. hostess. In fact, there's rarely a moment that she isn't blasting full speed ahead to solve some kind of a problem.
The cast is decent, several rungs above serviceable, but they often seem to be acting in different films. Most noticeable is the lack of chemistry between de Havilland and Tufts. It's hard to believe they have much interest in each other, let alone feel blossoming love. Moorehead comes off the best, cozily comfortable in her deliciously rude role. She elevates everyone around her in her brief scenes.
It's easy to spot the scenes that are supposed to be hilarious. There's a wild motorcycle ride and a drunk scene so wacky you wonder how it even came to be. I don't recall laughing much at either, but I loved both of them. The pacing was weird, and there was no magic to the execution, but the actors are uniformly goofy, as if they all came from the same insane asylum. There's palpable energy here, if misdirected, and it was fascinating to watch.
I enjoyed the way Government Girl explored the challenges of life in D.C. in the early days of the war. The city was full of young women working temporarily for the war effort. They filled every available room, preened for the few eligible bachelors in town and scrambled for steak, stockings and other wartime rarities. All of these issues are played for humor and hit the mark more often than not.
I'm not a big fan of de Havilland, I respect her more than I like her, but her missteps in Government Girl almost made me adore her. I've read that she desperately did not want to make this film. She had been fighting for stronger roles and this part on loan-out to RKO did not meet her standards. In fact, she would not make another film for two years as she fought to be released from her Warner Bros. contract.
I didn't know that when I watched the movie, but in hindsight, I'm guessing that the weird vibe I kept catching from her was resentment. Maybe she overplays and flails around because she actually couldn't handle this kind of comedy, but I wonder if some of the off-kilter quality of her performance comes from boiling anger. Perhaps that's why even though she isn't particularly funny, de Havilland is strangely appealing in this role. The fire in the real woman was colliding with the frothy intent of her character.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.