I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE (Howard Hawks, 1949)

Among the loveliest and most oddly moving American film comedies, I Was a Male War Bride blends genres seamlessly. This generic crossbreeding wasn’t unusual in the late forties and early fifties: Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) crossbred the “woman’s picture” with film noir; It Happens Every Spring (Lloyd Bacon, 1949), the sports film with fantasy; High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), the western with the social “message movie.” I Was a Male War Bride’s two genres were screwball comedy, in which sexual antagonism is traditionally rife, and the postwar semi-documentary, which often (though not here) involved some sort of criminal investigation. The latter genre, inspired by wartime newsreels and, perhaps, Italian neorealism, was in particular identified with the studio 20th Century-Fox, and with either producer Louis De Rochement (Boomerang!, Elia Kazan, 1947), director Henry Hathaway (Kiss of Death, 1947; Call Northside 777, 1948), or both (The House on 92nd Street, 1945, which launched the genre). (De Rochemont had produced and directed March of Time newsreel features during the war.) These films were generally based on actual people and actual events. In 1948 William A. Wellman made a related film, The Iron Curtain, which Sol C. Siegel produced. That same year, documentary on-location shots of a bombed-out Berlin were woven into Billy Wilder’s satirical A Foreign Affair—perhaps Wilder’s most brilliant comedy, this from Paramount. The following year Siegel produced I Was a Male War Bride, which was even more extensively shot in postwar Germany. It was based on a story by Henri Rochard, who is the main character, depicting a part of his own life story, much as The Iron Curtain had come from spy Igor Gouzenko’s actual experiences, which he sold to the movies as an original story. I Was a Male War Bride (unlike The Iron Curtain) was a hit with the public and a favorite of its executive producer, and the head of 20th Century-Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck.

The director is Howard Hawks, whose reputation is primarily as a genre director. Hawks made war and combat films (The Dawn Patrol, 1930; The Road to Glory, 1936; Air Force, 1943) and westerns (Red River, 1948; Rio Bravo, 1959; El Dorado, 1967); he made the best U.S. gangster film of the sound era (Scarface, 1932) and, although uncredited except as its producer, perhaps the best U.S. science-fiction film (The Thing from Another World, 1951). Another rich bounty of Hawks’s legacy is his screwball comedies: Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Monkey Business (1952). Hawks was nominated for a competitive Oscar only for his direction of Sergeant York (1941),* but the American motion-picture academy voted him a career Oscar in 1975.

Captain Rochard, of the French Army, and Lieutenant Catherine Gates, of the American, have teamed up for successful missions; one of these retrieved French art treasures that the Nazis had confiscated. Now they embark on Rochard’s final mission, the unclear nature of which is correlative to their own dizzyingly unclear personal relationship. Each apparently delights in making the other miserable, but only Gates, romantically swifter, is conscious of the delight; beneath a surface of bickering, the two are in love with each other. During this last mission of theirs, both discover this and wade through a dispiriting maze of bureaucratic U.S. Army red tape in order to marry and set off for America, their wedding night, at the mercy of rules and regulations pertaining to lodging, in a constant state of postponement. In order to set sail for the United States, Rochard must be categorized as Gates’s “alien bride,” for which role, to be allowed onboard the ship, Rochard must feign being a woman. They lock themselves into a cabin; the Statue of Liberty—France’s gift to America—eventually appears through the port-hole: visual proof, after a series of humiliations, that Rochard’s sense of manhood has been restored and that the Rochards’ marriage has been consummated.

The outstanding script is by Charles Lederer, Leonard Spigelgass and Hagar Wilde; the gray cinematography that so beautifully adds to the film’s immense realism is by Norbert Brodine and Osmond Borradaile. Everything about the film is steeped in the experience of postwar Europe, in which context the Rochard-Gates union deeply affects us as a blossom growing from the rubble of war. I Was a Male War Bride’s comedy of coitus interruptus would remain cinema’s funniest until Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1971), and the conclusive image remains the only instance in cinema when the appearance of Lady Liberty reliably reduces me to tears. All that this couple has been put through in order to be together and have a life together coalesces into one of the most forceful wallops to the heart that any light film has ever delivered, and it predicts the difficulties ahead for their marriage, given especially Rochard’s cultural dislocation. The Rochards’ ordeal also reflects on the high degree of order that may be needed to reclaim Europe from the chaos that fascism and the war had embroiled it in.

For all its realism, this is a terrifically funny film, loaded with visual gags and even slapstick, as when, mounted on a railroad-crossing gate en route to retrieving Gates’s dropped lipstick, Rochard suddenly rises with the raising of the gate as a train rushes through, making every male viewer wince at the pain that Rochard is sustaining to his crotch. The skyward moment takes up a long shot, with the train in between the viewer and Rochard so that the event appears in flickering patches of space. Throughout, Hawks draws on various techniques such as this choice of camera placement to subordinate a personal or subjective occurrence to the realism of the social or unfolding historical environment. Hawks knows his business—and his Jacques Tati, to whose Jour de fête (1947) he pays homage in this instance and at least one other.

Cary Grant is wonderful as Rochard, the absence of a French accent a poignant reminder throughout of the vantage of Rochard’s reminiscence and of his Americanization. Grant makes Rochard’s frustrations and humiliations, all rendered low-keyed (he doesn’t emit his famous whinny here), exactingly realistic. Ann Sheridan is perhaps even better as Gates. The great dramatic actress of Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1942) and Come Next Spring (R.G. Springsteen, 1955) proves herself here one of cinema’s great comediennes.** For one thing, she helps us believe that the couple are really in love. One of the several flaws of Bringing Up Baby is that Katharine Hepburn’s character seems to exhaust Grant’s character, their final clinch more a product of this hounding of hers and his exhaustion than of any real feeling between them. Moreover, Sheridan is as vibrantly warm as Hepburn is archly cold; Gates doesn’t strike us as a comedy contrivance but as a complex, down-to-earth woman with a great sense of humor, all of which befits the fact that she is based on an actual person. Hepburn, of course, is funnier in Bringing Up Baby; as Gates, though, Sheridan is more human and humane. In her mid-thirties, she is also, still, a sexual knockout—a help since, however handsome he may be, Grant is by contrast fastidious and sexually reticent. Grant needs Sheridan, much as Henri needs Catherine, for his completion. She’s still got that oomph.

And we have our memories of (in 1939’s Dodge City) the single most beautiful American woman ever to appear in films, who left our earth too soon, at age 52.

* The winner, John Ford for one of his weakest films, How Green Was My Valley, which also won as best picture, personally apologized to Hawks. For us, now, the triumphs of 1941 aren’t either the Hawks or the Ford film but Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, both nominated as best picture but winning only a single Oscar between them.

** Two other grand Sheridan performances are in Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938) and Take Me to Town (Douglas Sirk, 1953). Although she is out-acted by Jimmy Durante, Bette Davis and Monty Woolley, Sheridan’s dead-on parody of Joan Crawford in The Man Who Came to Dinner (William Keighley, 1941) is screamingly funny. Poor Joan!

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