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Star of the Month: Olivia de Havilland
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Government Girl

How does an actress look when she's stuck in a place where she doesn't want to be? Olivia de Havilland's face in the wartime romantic comedy Government Girl (1943) will give you a pretty good idea. Sonny Tufts plays Ed Browne, an auto engineer who takes a thankless government job overseeing the production of bombers; de Havilland is Elizabeth "Smokey" Allard, his secretary, a woman who knows all the ins and outs of Washington. The problem is, before they start working together, the two meet disastrously: Browne inadvertently spoils the wedding ceremony of Smokey's best friend, May (Anne Shirley). When Smokey discovers that this aw-shucks small-town gent, newly arrived in the capital, is her new boss, she unhappily realizes she needs to make the best of it.

In its best moments Government Girl has a goofy exuberance: The director is Dudley Nichols, and it was his first time at the helm of a film, though he'd long been a successful screenwriter. Nichols was one of the writers on Bringing Up Baby (1938), and his penchant for slapstick mayhem is evident in Government Girl: In so many of her films, de Havilland is a generally ladylike presence, but we often see Smokey dashing about madly, narrowly avoiding collisions in hallways, or sliding across the floor in her stockinged feet. (For some reason, one of the quirks of Smokey's character is that she's always slipping out of her shoes, even at work.) Tufts' Browne looks on, laconically, with amusement: His job is to be the regular joe who ends up making good even in the midst of the government machine and who, of course, gets the girl in the end - though first he has to wrest her away from the ambitious but unworthy politician, played by Jess Barker, who has dazzled her.

In Government Girl, Tufts is a low-key presence, so low-key that he barely registers. Born Bowen Charlton Tufts III, to a moneyed family in Boston's Back Bay, Tufts was a boy soprano at his parish church, though he was kicked out for blowing a joke-shop "razzberry" horn one Sunday during the service. A comic actor might have been born then and there, although Tufts went the conventional route and attended Philips Exeter Academy, and then Yale, before deciding to study as an opera singer. (He actually auditioned with the Metropolitan Opera.) Tufts ditched opera to become a nightclub singer, and played a few roles on Broadway before finding his way to Hollywood, where he became a semi-successful leading man, partly because so many of the industry's A-list actors were serving in the war.

The chemistry between Tufts and de Havilland wasn't the greatest, and it shows in Government Girl. A skilled dramatic actress, de Havilland doesn't seem particularly at home with comedy, at least in Government Girl: Despite the picture's broad comic touches and antic physicality, she's clearly hanging back. That may have to do partly with the script. The film was adapted from an Adela Rogers St. Johns short story - the initial script was by Budd Schulberg, a writer de Havilland approved of. But when Schulberg was drafted into the navy, RKO assigned the project to Nichols, who then rewrote the script himself. Although it had been rumored that de Havilland and Nichols didn't get along, de Havilland claims otherwise. "We had an excellent relationship," she said later. "He was a charming, rather distinguished man, and we became very good friends."

But de Havilland was unhappy for other reasons. Joseph Cotten was originally slated to play Browne; somehow, Tufts ended up with the role instead, a choice that didn't exactly please de Havilland. And there were other problems: Under contract to Warner Bros. at the time, de Havilland had made Princess O'Rourke for the studio earlier that year; it was a troubled picture, and an unhappy experience for de Havilland. Seemingly as punishment for whatever disagreements they had over that film, Warner Bros. then lent de Havilland to David O. Selznick, who passed her on to RKO to make Government Girl. That, apparently, was the last straw for the actress, who had completely lost patience with her home studio. She filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. that would become a landmark case, leading to the passage of what came to be known as the de Havilland Law, setting a seven-year limit on the contracts of studio players.

That, perhaps, is the most lasting legacy of Government Girl. The film did reasonably well with audiences at the time, though critics didn't have particularly kind words for it. The notoriously stuffy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, for one, was not amused, calling the film "a muddled and curiously uneven attempt to make several kinds of sport out of wartime crowded conditions and general government confusion in Washington. In some spots, his film is amusing. In long stretches, it is hopelessly dull." But even if he couldn't bring himself to fully praise de Havilland's performance, he couldn't damn it, either: "Olivia de Havilland throws herself around quite nicely as [Tuft's] variably solicitous office girl." Crowther seems to have picked up on the fact that she was going through the motions - but, being a consummate pro, she made sure the motions were at least adequate.

SOURCES:

IMDb
The New York Times
The Hollywood Reporter
Axel Nissen, The Films of Agnes Moorehead, Scarecrow Press, 2013

Producers: Edward Donahue, Dudley Nichols
Director: Dudley Nichols
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols (screenplay); Adela Rogers St. Johns (short story); Budd Schulberg (adaptation)
Cinematography: Frank Redman
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editing: Roland Gross
Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Elizabeth "Smokey" Allard), Sonny Tufts (E.H. "Ed" Browne), Anne Shirley (May), Jess Barker (Dana), James Dunn (Sergeant Joe), Paul Stewart (Branch), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Wright)

[black-and-white, 93 minutes]

By Stephanie Zacharek

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