Government Girl (1943) Starring Olivia de Havilland and Sonny Tufts

Government Girl is not a great movie and there seems to be some argument over whether it is even a good movie. Opinion of quality might boil down to just how funny you find Olivia de Havilland. Sonny Tufts is certainly a handicap as her leading man. But given the subject matter Government Girl is definitely an interesting movie and actually more so today than when it was released RKO in 1943.

Olivia de Havilland and Sonny Tufts in Government Girl

The difference between 1943 and today is the evolution from current event to history. I think a little further context would boost the poor reputation of this World War II home front comedy. Perhaps a short about the real government girls should be appended to the front of the movie to give better understanding the the situations shown throughout Government Girl. As of yet it has never had a home video release anyway, but Warner Archive/TCM Vault/etc., are you listening?

A fascinating 1999 Washington Post article by Megan Rosenfeld about her government girl mother reads like background research for our 1943 movie. One area Rosenfeld stresses is housing shortages noting that 10,000 boarding houses sprung up in Washington during this time. She writes that Washington's population grew in the late 1930's and that in 1940 when the Civil Service heavily recruited defense workers over 24,000 women entered government service.

By 1942 the population of Washington had increased by a quarter of a million people. Quite a number considering America was by then at war. A period article from the Hammond Times reveals civil service commission statistics from the fall of 1944 claiming that there were 152,000 government girls in the capital by that date with about 13% of them, or 20,000 young women, being under 21 years of age. That article with its focus on teens noted that approximately 60,000 men and women had left federal service to enter the armed forces since the start of the war.

Think of how chaotic that must have been. 60,000 out. Mostly men. Two and a half times that number in. All women.

Sonny Tufts and Government Girl admirers

Washington was overcrowded and populated by a high ratio of young women. Both of these traits are shown throughout Government Girl and are especially made clear in the opening scene when Ed Browne (Sonny Tufts) arrives in the overbooked town and waits for a room to open up in a hotel lobby. Minding his own business he's quickly surrounded by attention seeking young women. Meanwhile, Smokey (Olivia de Havilland) escorts friends May (Anne Shirley) and Joe (James Dunn) to that same hotel where they had booked a room in advance to be married and stay after for a brief honeymoon.

The hotel has given May and Joe's room to Browne after seeing his face on the cover of a newspaper touting his arrival as an important government appointee. May and Joe are forced to hold their ceremony behind a semi-private screen while their honeymoon plans have been revised to a stay in May and Smokey's room at a girl's boarding house run. There is a bit of a complication to that plan because proprietor Mrs. Harris (Una O'Connor) does not allow men on the premises.

Olivia de Havilland in Government Girl

While May and Joe spend much of their too limited time in Government Girl seeking a room to share as man and wife, a real government girl would likely have been very grateful for the rooms Mrs. Harris supplied. In May 1942 Eleanor Roosevelt and the wives of 24 heads of government agencies issued a joint statement declaring housing conditions for government girls "extremely bad" and that "there is profiteering, lack of sanitation, overcrowding." Overcrowded perhaps, but Smokey and May's room at Mrs. Harris' boarding house was certainly clean and seemed an ideal dormitory situation compared to what could have been shown.

The Washington crowds extend beyond hotel lobbies and are shown in throngs around the city including Joe's military post at the Social Security Office and in the pack of women waiting for a bus in front of Smokey and May.

Missing the bus in Government Girl

As to the ratio issue, beyond the overwhelming number of female extras in Government Girl the problem is mentioned in dialog by May who thinks pal Smokey should count herself very lucky at having the option of two different male suitors, reporter Branch Owens (Paul Stewart) and ambitious Senate sub-committee member Dana McGuire (Jess Barker). Of course Smokey soon has a third admirer as well in Ed Browne, but it takes over 35 minutes of Government Girl for Browne to discover that Smokey is even available.

Browne likes Smokey from their first chance meeting when Smokey is crawling the floor of the hotel lobby trying to locate May's wedding ring. He helps out but irritably insists that the girl is "making a mistake" and that he "doesn't take marriage lightly." Even with women swooping in to pick up Browne's handkerchief, the no nonsense Washington newcomer seems smitten by Smokey from the start.

Sonny Tufts and Olivia de Havilland

And why not, Smokey had just what the men of Washington were looking for. A 1943 newspaper article polled men working in government, outnumbered 3 to 1 by women in the city at that time, to reveal the top three qualities to help a lonely government girl land a date: Cleanliness, sensible clothes, and a natural, well-modulated voice, in that order (Madison). They don't mention zaniness but otherwise that checklist perfectly nails de Havilland's Smokey!

I got on Olivia de Havilland a little bit for her comedic efforts in Princess O'Rourke (1943). She's still a bit awkward in Government Girl, but she's such a charming love interest especially in contrast to her charmless admirers that it doesn't really matter. She was more adept than I would have expected at physical comedy though she struggled at times to deliver humorous lines with proper punch. She has a few moments where here body language is also over the top, recalling her exaggerated tip-toe through Mrs. Harris' hallway as I type that, but despite any awkwardness I found myself chuckling at her motions many times throughout Government Girl.

Olivia de Havilland in Government Girl

Government Girl would be de Havilland's last appearance on the screen for over two years. It was the final de Havilland film released prior to her contract dispute and legal challenge to Warner Brothers, though she did work on the later release Devotion (1946) prior to her fight against the studio.

Then still a Warner Brothers employee de Havilland actually wound up with RKO for Government Girl through a slightly more complicated than usual trade. She was originally swapped by Warner to David O. Selznick in return for Ingrid Bergman whom Warner cast in Casablanca (1942). Selznick, who loved having de Havilland in Gone With the Wind (1939) had really looked forward to using her in another film but whether that movie just never came to be or Selznick saw too great a profit potential in de Havilland as a property he instead decided to use his option to sell her services to RKO. RKO then cast de Havilland alongside Tufts in Government Girl. In light of her quest for quality parts one has to chuckle to see how Government Girl is only a couple of studio transactions removed from Casablanca!

Despite the looming legal storm de Havilland comes off as a pro in Government Girl. Even if she's not a talented comedienne she genuinely appears to be having fun in the movie. And she has her moments including what is actually a pretty hilarious drunk scene shared with Anne Shirley. The scene, played with George Givot as Count Bodinsky is completely unnecessary, awkwardly slammed into the story just prior to the Senate hearing finale, but funny enough not to let that bother you too much.

Too much to drink for Olivia de Havilland and Anne Shirley

She apparently did her bit in promoting the movie as well talking to reporter Jerry Breitigam about real government girls: "They live in congested quarters, travel in mobs and have no personal privacy. Girls who gave up homes and beaux to go there. Girls who had been infantile paralysis victims, walking with dragging legs. But they know it's women's war as well as men's." Whether she was just doing her job or if perhaps she actually felt she did some good on the home front with Government Girl I can't be sure.

In Government Girl de Havilland plays Smokey, a secretary to newly arrived Ed Browne (Tufts) of the Office of War Management. The Office of War Management appears to be a slightly fictionalized version of President Roosevelt's War Production Board. Smokey explains it in better detail to Browne when attempting to point out where they fit into the American government:

"The Office for War Management. Now, what do you find under the OWM?" she asks Browne.

"A lot of letters," her boss replies, referring to FDR's alphabet soup of agencies.

"Letters!" Smokey declares. Pointing at a chart she elaborates, "You find the WCB, the BRG, the NWLB, the RKF, the OGG, the OTC, the WBD, the HFQ, the RTC, the OMA, the OGQ, the ORC, the OTW, the OPS, the OLK, the OOO," she turns to find she's lost Browne's interest and adds, "Oh."

Sonny Tufts and Olivia de Havilland

Browne is a hands-on Washington outsider who seeks to cut through the red tape to get bombers built. A no-BS working class sort out of Detroit's automotive industry, Browne would prefer to be in uniform but has been called to Washington by a character called the Chief (Emory Parnell) to serve "the biggest factory in the world." Frustrated with Washington's rules Browne tells Smokey that the job can't be done, but Smokey fuels him with her optimism and Browne is soon placing calls to Roosevelt himself.

Browne does things his way and bomber production soars. But he steps on too many toes and eventually runs afoul of experienced Washingtonian C.L. Harvester (Paul Stanton) who winds up telling Browne that "In my opinion you're either a fool or you're making yourself rich inside airplane production." Harvester presses the issue setting up a Senate investigation headed by kindly Harry Davenport as Senator MacVickers but with Smokey's ambitious boyfriend Dana McGuire (Barker) pressing the charges on Capitol Hill.

Sonny Tufts and the Chief watch the results of their efforts

De Havilland biographer Judith M. Kass writes that Government Girl was profitable (73) but echoes many of the period reviews paling it in comparison to earlier titles such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and the even more recent The More the Merrier (1943). Certainly true, though those are pretty good standards to bump up against!

Frank Morriss, a writer for the Winnipeg Free Press slammed Government Girl making mention of overacting from de Havilland, who'd previously scored in the comedy Princess O'Rourke, and a wooden Sonny Tufts, who had just made his successful debut in So Proudly We Hail (1943). He surmises that since "Both these people have shown themselves good troupers, (so) the blame must fall on Mr. Nichols."

At the time of Government Girl Dudley Nichols already had a very long and impressive line of screenplay credits highlighted by his work on several John Ford classics including The Lost Patrol (1934), Judge Priest (1934), The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939), and The Long Voyage Home (1940). On Government Girl not only did he handle the screenplay but Nichols also directed and produced the film.

Tufts and de Havilland meet Agnes Moorehead and are snubbed by Sig Ruman

Along with Jean Renoir he had produced one previous film, This Land is Mine (1943), which was directed by Renoir with a script by Nichols, but Government Girl was Dudley Nichols first shot at directing. At a time when most newspaper reviews were little more than publicity puff pieces Morriss absolutely savages Nichols for his efforts: "Sometimes too many cooks don't spoil the film broth," he wrote. "It looks as if he'd better get out while he has his artistic reputation."

Bosley Crowther dulled the edge a little but still came down pretty hard on Government Girl in his January 7, 1944 New York Times review. He opens his review by stating Nichols is a "first-class screen-writer" but of Government Girl Crowther writes that, "In some spots, his film is amusing. In long stretches, it is hopelessly dull." Crowther then makes the usual comparisons to the better recalled Washington war-time films before going for the kill with his conclusion that "the plot takes such sudden twists and sideslips, the pace is so uneven, the styles are so jumbled and the story, by and large, is so topically stale that the film has the look of an effort of a directorial amateur."

Earlier I wrote that yesterday's current events are history by today's view. That still goes whether Government Girl was considered stale or not by 1944. Crowther isn't complaining about the accuracy of Government Girl. The fact that he calls it stale seems to strengthen my case for the movie as a time capsule curiosity.

James Dunn and Anne Shirley in Government Girl

The Winnipeg writer Morriss thought Nichols goofed in choosing a comedy for his efforts correctly stating that the majority of his previous work had been on dramatic films. He does not mention one glaring exception to that rule however, Nichols work in collaboration with Hagar Wilde on Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938). Nichols would wear all three hats on two additional productions for RKO, Sister Kenny (1946) and Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), with each of those dramatic efforts gaining Oscar nominations and Golden Globe victories for Rosalind Russell. The O'Neill adaptation also brought Michael Redgrave an Oscar nomination.

Despite the artistic acclaim received by his actors Mourning Becomes Electra was a notorious flop and Nichols only posted writing credits thereafter. He'd won an Oscar himself for the screenplay on The Informer, and made Oscar history by becoming the first person to turn down an Academy Award. He still managed another three subsequent writing nominations with the last coming late in his life as one of three writers on the Anthony Mann Western The Tin Star (1957). Nichols died in 1960.

Olivia de Havilland and Anne Shirley in Government Girl

More on de Havilland in a moment. Sonny Tufts is passable as Browne until he gets angry or excited. These and all other emotions are expressed simply by Tufts speaking louder and, if possible, more monotone. Anne Shirley and James Dunn are underutilized and I would have especially liked to have seen more of Shirley with de Havilland. Agnes Moorehead shows up as a Washington socialite in a couple of scenes and doesn't get to do much other than be properly standoffish. Jess Barker was no better than Sonny Tufts, just without the volume switch. Not a lot to do for Harry Davenport, Una O'Connor or especially Sig Ruman, but I got a kick out of each of these pros in action. Warren Hymer shows up in one scene as an MP to harrass Dunn's character and should get a good laugh.

My argument in favor of Government Girl is that it deserves to be remembered. It is worth watching and you might even like it. You may enjoy Olivia de Havilland's performance, though I'd completely understand if you find it to be a little too much. In that case you might even hate what she does as Smokey Allard, but Government Girl is still worth a view for the one area it does manage to keep in sharp focus: Washington D.C., 1943.

De Havilland and Tufts on motorcycle ride

De Havilland, like Dudley Nichols' movie as a whole, pushes too hard for comedy. For me they pushed so far that they went past a breaking point and I found myself laughing against my best intentions. Take de Havilland's alphabet speech included above. It's too much. But it's way too much and after a few moments of wishing for it to stop I found myself giggling as it went on. Same for the completely ridiculous motorcycle ride that Tufts takes de Havilland on in an early scene. Way too much, but I was smiling when it was over.

Way too much, but I was smiling when it was over.

Olivia de Havilland in Government Girl

Sources:

  • Breitigam, Jerry. "Olivia Finds Something Big in Real Government Girls." Salt Lake Tribune. 15 August 1943: 58.
  • Crowther, Bosley. "Movie Review: Government Girl." The New York Times. 7 January 1944. Web. 9 May 2012. < http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE1D61531E03BBC4F53DFB766838F659EDE >
  • Kass, Judith M. Olivia de Havilland. New York: Pyramid Publications, 1976.
  • Madison, Janet. "Washington's Government Girls Learn What Pleases Typical Capital Men." Lowell Sun. 9 March 1943: 52.
  • Morriss, Frank. "Mr. Nichols Makes a Mistake." Winnipeg Free Press. 23 Jan. 1944: 6.
  • "Overcrowding at Washington Investigated." Sheboygan Press. 9 May 1942: 2.
  • Rosenfeld, Megan. "'Government Girls': World War II's Army of the Potomac." Washington Post. 10 May 1999: A1. Web. 9 May 2012. < http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/2000/govgirls0510.htm >
  • "U.S. Hires 20,000 Under 21 Years." Hammond Times. 29 October 1944:13.

Comments

  1. Laura says

    Just a quick note to follow up on my “roundup” link and say how much I enjoyed your detailed and well-written post!  Looks like the film fits in well with themes in movies like THE MORE THE
    MERRIER and THE DOUGHGIRLS — the peek at wartime Washington is fun! Looking forward to the movie, and I hope others will enjoy the post and/or the film as well. :) 

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    • says

      Thanks again for including me in your roundup @6c46afbc58a703991f6026e90f2c0107:disqus , I always appreciate it!

      I haven’t seen “The Doughgirls” (looks interesting) but right-on about “The More the Merrier.” And as we discussed on Twitter last night, probably a fun movie for fans of Olivia de Havilland in “Princess O’Rourke” as well.

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