"I'm going someplace to change back into a man. I'm tired of being my own wife!"—Henri Rochard (Cary Grant)
Ten years before Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis redefined the idea of "finding your feminine side" in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot, Cary Grant got gussied up for I Was a Male War Bride, a charming and occasionally very funny 1949 Howard Hawks comedy. Although there are some dull patches and occasionally long stretches between laughs, it's held aloft by the sheer star power of its leading man and overall good-natured sense of fun.
Facts of the Case
World War II is over, and Germany is now occupied by the Allied forces, which include France and the United States. When a French captain, Henri Rochard (Grant), and an American lieutenant, Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan), are sent on a mission to find a black-market dealer in one of the country's rural villages, they find their mutual disdain for each other turning into romance. Upon their return, the couple decides to get married. But when Lt. Gates is ordered back to the United States, the two find that getting back into America as a married couple may be more trouble than it's worth.
Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, Howard Hawks and Cary Grant emerged as one of the cinema's greatest actor-director teams, collaborating on no fewer than three outright classics—two screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby in 1938 and His Girl Friday in 1940, and one adventure drama, 1939's Only Angels Have Wings. It then took the duo nine years to work together again, finally reuniting for I Was a Male War Bride in 1949. And though it's considered one of their lesser efforts, just having these two names in the credits are enough to set classic movie fans' hearts aflutter.
The thing that really makes the whole package work is the chemistry between the romantic leads, Grant and Ann Sheridan. The initial setup is a well-worn cliché: two people meet, hate each other, spend some time together, and—yes, America, you guessed it—fall in love. What keeps the film from being hampered by the tiredness of its premise is, in my opinion, the combination of two things—the chemistry between the leads, and the fact that the actual romance happens at the halfway point of the film. In more generic romcoms, it would take the two the length of the picture to drop their charade and admit their attraction to each other, but in Bride, the romance and marriage is only the beginning. The real fun starts when they are forced to figure out a way to get Grant back into the United States, because of an American military rule that makes a provision for war brides to enter the States with their husbands, but says nothing about the bridegrooms of military women. Naturally, you can imagine what kinds of ideas the two come up with to get past this obstacle.
Cary Grant was perhaps the greatest light comic actor to ever grace a movie screen, whether he played the screwball (as in His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby), or the straight man, as he does here. His Capt. Rochard is a good-natured skirt-chaser with an out-of-control temper, and because of Grant's impeccable comic timing and star power, his transformation into romantic lead is as believable as anything else in the film. Sheridan, with her short, curly hair and deep voice, isn't the most obvious choice to be paired with the likes of Grant, but she matches him note for note, and the two make perfect foils for each other.
If I Was a Male War Bride doesn't quite match the overall laugh-per-minute ratio of Hawks' and Grant's earlier collaborations, it's because it lacks the rapid-fire pacing of those certified classics. Baby and His Girl Friday relied on speed for comedic effect, whereas Bride, by comparison, is more leisurely paced, and takes a bit longer to breathe between laughs, making for some draggy sections. The script by Charles Lederer, Leonard Spigleglass, and Hagar Wilde isn't as crammed with jokes as those prior efforts, but what is here is very funny, and the punch lines are easily on par with most anything taken from the same period of screen comedy.
In the end, if I Was a Male War Bride isn't one of the all-time great farces, it's still absolutely watchable, and features one of the cinema's great comic actors doing what he did best—charming the women and garnering laughs. It wins over its audience on the strength of good, old-fashioned star power and solid romantic chemistry. I defy anyone to come up with a director today who has the ability to combine romance and slapstick better than Hawks.
On DVD, War Bride looks solid, if not sensational. The 1.33:1 full-frame transfer features a very solid black-and-white source print, with only occasional scratches and bits of debris. It's not on par with any of their Studio Classics series restorations, but I'd rank it with any of the recent Warner Bros. single-disc classic releases in terms of quality. Audio is featured in both two-channel stereo and original mono, and sounds great for what it is, with no hissing or background noise of any kind. The disc includes subtitles in both English and Spanish.
Again, this isn't a Studio Classics series release, so the extras are scant at best, but there is some worthwhile material here. The only real extra is some newsreel footage of the stars and director interacting with troops in Germany, where the film was shot. There's no sound during the reel, but it's a nice little curiosity piece, and certainly shouldn't be counted as filler. There's also the film's original theatrical trailer and a stills gallery, as well as trailers for Fox's other Grant properties—An Affair to Remember, People Will Talk, Monkey Business, and Kiss Them For Me.
If the names Cary Grant and Howard Hawks don't mean anything to you, then you shouldn't be reading this review. Anyone who knows the genius of these two men will understand that even their lesser collaborations should be necessary viewing. Although the extras on Fox's disc release aren't going to bowl anyone over, the movie is the attraction here. Classic film fans would do well to check it out.
Not guilty on all counts. Fox is commended on getting I Was a Male War Bride out on disc with as few hiccups as possible.
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