#24 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This feels unlike any comedy Howard Hawks had made up to this point. It feels, well, it feels typical. It’s definitely not bad, but the screwball antics of Bringing Up Baby and Ball of Fire are well gone. What we have instead is a slow-building post-war comedy starring Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan that looks like A Foreign Affair, relying on star power and charm to get the laughs. It works, especially on the back end, but I can’t help but feel a slight sense of letdown in the wake of the raucous times I had from his earlier comedies.
Cary Grant plays the French Captain Henri Rochard. Notably, Grant makes absolutely no effort to affect a French accent, even in his handful of lines where he speaks French. Would this story have worked if they had changed Rochard to Richard and made him English instead of French? Anyway, he’s on the tail end of his military career in post-war Germany, performing some small tasks for his command with the help of female American officers, namely Ann Sheridan’s Lieutenant Catherine Gates. They have an acrimonious relationship with tales of light physical abuse from both sides. Their first scene together is Rochard dropping off some of her laundry in the most tawdry way possible, walking up to her desk in her shared office and dropping each item (including bloomers) onto her desk, listing them individually, creating the impression that they slept together (which is obviously not true). They get assigned one final mission together, to find a lens grinder in a small German town, and they’re off.
It’s a mission built on misadventure beginning with the fact that they cannot get a car since the motor pool has them all assigned out, but they can take a motorcycle and sidecar since Catherine is licensed to drive a motorcycle, though Rochard is not. Here we get the first sense of the gender reversals that will end up dominating the final section of the film. She drives the motorcycle while Henri sits meekly in the sidecar, first being left behind because the two aren’t even connected with him unable to do anything about it. Their mission goes sideways early and often, first when their access to the road is shut off due to a search for a criminal. To get around that, they pack the motorcycle into a small rowboat and row down the river before nearly falling over a waterfall, barely escaping in time. They then get thoroughly lost in the countryside, unable to even find the road, until late at night. Finding the road, but not knowing where they are, Henri climbs a poll to read a sign, only to discover that it says wet paint and he has white paint all down his uniform as it rains. It all comes to a head when Henri walks into the black market to find the lens grinder, and Catherine laughs while he gets arrested by the local authorities.
All of this comes to convince the two that their antagonism is rooted in love, and in an amusing scene where Henri accidentally drives away in the sidecar without Catherine ending in a haystack, the two come to the conclusion out loud to each other. This first hour isn’t the most efficient storytelling Hawks has ever had, but it’s effective setup for what will dominate the second half of the film: the Kafkaesque process of the two getting married in the eyes of the US Army, the German government, and the Roman Catholic Church followed by the ordeal they have to spend their first night together.
The forms the Army requires for a servicewoman to marry an alien must be done in quadruplicate as well as signed as the commanding general. The papers get lost because a male friend of Catherine’s wants her to take some time to reconsider marrying the Frenchman. They have to go through three separate ceremonies after getting their civil marriage license, one with the German civil authority, the next with the Army chaplain, and finally with Henri’s parish priest. Once that laborious process gets sorted out, it seems like all is well. They have leave for their honeymoon, Catherine has a new nightgown, and Henri is looking forward to his first night with his wife. That is, until orders come that Catherine must report immediately to go to port to sail back home.
What is Henri supposed to do? His status as a French serviceman doesn’t mean anything to the Army in terms of getting him to America, so he has to file as a war bride. The forms are all meant for a woman marrying a male servicemember, and that’s the source of the comedy. He repeats several times the title to the original novel that inspired the film “I am an alien spouse of female military personnel enroute to the United States under Public Law 271 of the Congress.” (I kind of wish they had kept that title for the film.) He gets shoved in with women on a bus, with some difficulty, then disallowed to sleep in the same building. No one will allow him to sleep anywhere, and when he finally arrives at the boat for America, the forms saying “Mrs. Rochard” keep the navy from allowing him on the boat at all, leading to the famous cross-dressing bit (roughly five minutes at the end of the movie).
It’s a fairly broad comedy done well, mostly in its final half hour. The first two thirds could have been trimmed a bit to speed up the slower parts a bit, but otherwise I Was a Male War Bride was an amusing little diversion, a minor success in Hawks’ career.