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Marriage, a wartime bed shortage and a female Russian guerrilla combine to make a frenetic farce in The Doughgirls (1944). Jane Wyman's ditzy Vivian arrives at her honeymoon suite in Washington, D.C., with her new husband Arthur (Jack Carson), but the wartime housing shortage throws bumps in the road to marital bliss. Vivian is quickly joined by the wisecracking Edna (Ann Sheridan) and fellow husband hunter Nan (Alexis Smith), keeping the newlyweds bunked in separate rooms and feeling like they're living at Grand Central Station.
The real scene-stealer, though, is Eve Arden as a Russian guerrilla fighter who keeps up her sniper skills by shooting pigeons from the hotel balcony and rescues the other girls from their romantic comedy entanglements.
Arden and Wyman garnered the best reviews at the time of the film's release, despite the top billings of Sheridan and Smith. The New York Times wrote that Wyman "played a priceless nitwit who is a great admirer of President Roosevelt's because of his fine acting ability in `Yankee Doodle Dandy.'" Many newspaper reviews, in fact, included a photo of rising star Wyman rather than her established co-stars.
But Wyman almost didn't make The Doughgirls. After her turn in Make Your Own Bed (1944), also starring Jack Carson, Warner Bros. pressured Wyman into taking a supporting role in The Doughgirls with fourth billing. Wyman almost balked and risked suspension, but close friend Sheridan talked her into joining the cast and Wyman called the filming "a romp, an absolute romp." At the time, Wyman and husband Ronald Reagan's marriage was beginning to show cracks as the couple began to diverge in their interests. They would divorce in 1948. While on a publicity tour for The Doughgirls in New York with her co-stars, director Billy Wilder contacted Wyman about the girlfriend role in The Lost Weekend (1945), and her career got another boost.
Arden landed the fortuitous role by a different route. In her autobiography Three Phases of Eve, Arden remembers, "while hanging around the studio lot as a bit player, I noticed a striking Russian military uniform walking around, each day with a different female body in it. Curious, I inquired and found that they were testing for the part of the Russian guerrilla in the film...I thought the Russian part might be fun to do...My love of dialects and the off-beat character resulted in a [screen] test the crew found hilarious. Evidently, so did Jack Warner, because the afternoon he screened it, my agent was summoned immediately to discuss a contract. So I joined Annie, Jane Wyman, and Alexis Smith in what was a romp to make, but due to the first effort of an inexperienced director, it didn't make much "dough" for Warner Bros., and I regretted that they hadn't released my test instead! It did, however, get me the only kind of contract I wanted to sign: two pictures a year, an option for a third, and the right to do Broadway shows and radio."
Statuesque beauty Alexis Smith, who had a string of roles opposite such famous leading men as Errol Flynn and Cary Grant in the 1940s and beyond, never achieved super-stardom herself but said she had few illusions about her career. Decades after her hey-day, she recalled in an interview, "In those days, I was fresh out of school and delighted to be a movie star...I was pretty much a utility girl at Warners. Anything Ann Sheridan or Ida Lupino or Jane Wyman didn't want to do, I sort of fell heir to. You know, people frequently feel it was a shame that Warners typecast me, but I don't believe that. I believe I typecast myself."
While filming The Doughgirls, Smith married Craig Stevens, who also appeared in the film after a medical discharge from the Army. It would be the last movie they made together, but they remained married for 49 years until Stevens' death.
Based on the Broadway hit of the same name, the film version of The Doughgirls had to water down some of the saucy situations and double-entendre dialogue because of the Hays Code. Critics also faulted first time director James V. Kern, who also co-wrote the script. (He would only make a few films before directing episodes of TV shows such as I Love Lucy and My Three Sons.) Despite some of the shortcomings, the cast seems to be having fun in what Variety described a "laugh marathon, and marquee-loaded."
Producer: Mark Hellinger
Director: James V. Kern
Screenplay: Joseph Fields (play), Sam Hellman, James V. Kern, Wilkie C. Mahoney
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Film Editing: Folmer Blangsted
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Ann Sheridan (Edna Stokes), Alexis Smith (Nan Curtiss), Jack Carson (Arthur Halstead), Jane Wyman (Vivian Marsden), Irene Manning (Sylvia Cadman), Charles Ruggles (Stanley Slade), Eve Arden (Natalia Moskoroff), Craig Stevens (Tom Dillon).
BW-102m. by Amy Cox