Seeing the names of Howard Hawks and Cary Grant together, I expected a lot from I Was a Male War Bride. Watching it, however, I felt slightly disappointed, as I soon realised this isn’t the masterpiece I’d expected – and nowhere near the sublime screwball comedy of their other collaborations like His Girl Friday.
Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it, and wouldn’t quite agree with the critics who claim that it is “horrendously unfunny” – James Harvey’s verdict in the massive book I’m currently reading, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood. I think that’s slightly harsh. There are some amusing moments, and the basic story is intriguing – but, to me, the main problem is that the dialogue just isn’t as fast and as sparkling as a screwball comedy needs it to be. Quite a bit of slapstick comedy is thrown in to make amends, and is often funny – but razor-sharp exchanges of wit between Grant and Ann Sheridan could have been even funnier.
The film is loosely based on a memoir by the real Henri Rochard, the name of Grant’s character in the movie – a Belgian who married an American servicewoman and found it extremely difficult to negotiate all the red tape involved in moving to the US as a “male war bride”. (According to an interesting web page I found, the name Henri Rochard was a pseudonym for Belgian underground fighter turned professor of oceanography Roger Charlier, who married US army nurse Kate, and was still active in his academic field in 2006.)
Although Rochard/Charlier was really a Belgian, in the film the character is French. However, Grant seems just as obviously English as usual, with no attempt to change his instantly recognisable mid-Atlantic accent. (I think he does say one line in French early on, but I couldn’t swear to it.) To be honest, that’s fine by me – I sometimes wish that actors with wonderful voices wouldn’t struggle so hard to do accents if it doesn’t come naturally. We all know what they really sound like anyway! Having said that, there are some distinctly odd scenes in this film where American soldiers struggle to speak French to Grant and he stares at them in bemusement, answering in perfect English.
The story is set in Germany immediately after the war, where French officer Rochard (Grant) constantly finds himself working with American Gates. They love to hate one another and are constantly sniping and finding fault – but, when the two of them are sent off to find a high-level German scientist, their enmity abruptly turns to love. Of course, hate at first sight, love at second sight is a comedy staple, but the problem here is that Henri really does seem to dislike Catherine, and their bickering is more sour than I expected in a romantic comedy. Also, the change from hate to love seems very abrupt – the couple kiss a few times (with one of Hawks’ frequently repeated lines of dialogue thrown in, about kissing being better when both people help) and that’s it. In the next scene they are engaged!
From this point on, the film changes tack – and, instead of arguing with each other, Henri and Catherine start to argue with a succession of bureaucrats, both military and civil, who want to put obstacles in their way. After they get married, the movie starts to have a strong element of farce, as it is impossible for them ever to spend the night together and consummate their marriage – because, every time they are in a room together, a military commander issues an order or they have to move on, or they discover that the hotel or hostel won’t take couples.
The couple decide that Henri should travel back to the US with Catherine under the war brides legislation, as her spouse, since this will allow him to live and work in the country. However, they soon discover that all the legislation and arrangements are based on the assumption that the foreign “spouse” is a woman. Henri has terrible problems in being allowed on to the buses for the brides, and can’t find anywhere to sleep. (In the UK the film was originally released under the title You Can’t Sleep Here – a mystifying decision since the original title must be one of the most striking things about the movie.) Although his problems are exacerbated by being a man, I do think the film shows how the mass of “brides” were treated, being interrogated about their personal lives (“Have you ever had any female troubles?”) and herded around – there are scenes of women with young children waiting around endlessly.
The comic climax comes when Henri can’t find a way of getting on to the boat, and in the end has to disguise himself as a very unlikely woman, Florence. This is by far the funniest part of the film, showing the way forward to Some Like It Hot – Cary Grant is just as gloriously unconvincing as a woman as Jack Lemmon is. I’ve read an account of the filming somewhere (I forget where) and Hawks said that, to start with, Grant was quite keen on putting on some female mannerisms etc, and he told him not to do any of that – just to play Florence as a man wearing a dress. That’s just what he does, with great comic results. Much of the film might be a bit below par for a team like Hawks and Grant, but the last scenes make up for a lot.