Washington, D.C. during World War II was a hectic place. The new jobs created to support the war effort drove many to the nation’s capital. The influx of people caused a housing shortage that had workers and hotels scrambling. And with so many men away on duty, D.C. became a 10-women-to-every-man kind of a town leaving single gals with few options. The “government girls”, who took on a variety of important roles, were crucial to war effort’s success.
What better way to examine chaos than with a screwball comedy? The film Government Girl (1943) is a humorous look at this moment in history. It was directed by Dudley Nichols, produced by RKO and adapted by Nichols and Budd Schulberg from a short story written by Adela Rogers St. John. Olivia de Havilland stars as Ms. Elizabeth Allard, AKA “Smokey”, a “government girl” living and working in D.C. She’s booked a honeymoon suite at a hotel for her best friend May (Anne Shirley) and her soon-to-be-husband Sgt. Joe Blake (James Dunn). Joe only has 24 hours to get married, have a quick honeymoon and be back on duty, so they are on a time crunch.
Unbeknownst to Smokey, the hotel gave their suite to Ed Browne (Sonny Tufts), a mechanic who has been hired by the government to do important work for the Air Force. When Smokey finds out the gentleman who lent her his ring so that her friend May could get married with one has the suite, they begin to butt heads.
And they keep butting heads when they eventually find out Smokey, or Ms. Allard, is really Ed Browne’s new secretary. He thinks she’s the one who was getting married. But really she’s a single government gal who already has two suitors, which is virtually a miracle in a town with an imbalanced ratio of men to women. Ms. Allard becomes Browne’s Girl Friday, helping him with important government work and championing for him when crooked government types try to screw him over.
This movie had a lot of potential but never quite realizes it. I read that Olivia de Havilland got stuck doing this film for RKO because of an arranged loan out from Warner Bros. What would follow was a difficult battle with Warners over her contract. Would the film have been better if circumstances for de Havilland were different? Male lead Sonny Tufts was being groomed during WWII to be a replacement star. With so many actors on duty and away from Hollywood, film studios needed more leading men. Tufts didn’t quite make the splash they were hoping for.
Government Girl is a quirky and funny movie but ultimately falls flat. The More the Merrier, a Columbia picture starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn, is from the same year and deals with the same topic but is much more entertaining. If you are interested in the topic of American life during WWII, I suggest you watch Government Girl and then The More the Merrier to achieve a better experience.
Notable appearances in the film include Agnes Moorehead as the villain Mrs. Right, Harry Davenport as Senator MacVickers and Una O’Connor as the honeymoon-wrecker/landlady. I love Anne Shirley, but I thought her role as the daft but loveable May was a little too similar to Joan Fontaine’s portrayal of Peggy in The Women (1939). I’m not sure why I made that comparison while I was watching the film but perhaps it has something to do with Fontaine and de Havilland being sisters.
The main reason I watched the film is because I’m interested in the D.C. housing shortage during WWII. I’ve lived in cramped quarters all my life so I enjoy watching films about similar situations. The More the Merrier and its 1966 remake Walk, Don’t Run, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and Buster Keaton’s short film The Scarecrow (1920) are some of my top favorite movies partly for that reason.
One final note: fans of 1940s fashion will want to watch this for the excellent outfits worn by Olivia de Havilland, Anne Shirley and Agnes Moorehead.
Raquel Stecher works in book publishing by day and is a classic film enthusiast by night. She’s been writing on her movie blog Out of the Past since 2007 and spends most of her free time watching old movies and reading books about them. She lives in the Boston area, where she watches many classics on the big screens of her local repertory theaters.