The male must go through

Cary Grant gets in bed with Ann Sheridan and literally keeps one foot on the floor, appeasing the Hays Code.

Fiona wanted to watch TWENTIETH CENTURY again, and what was I going to do, refuse? But first we watched I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE, which I don’t think she’d seen. I *know* I’d seen it, but I’d blanked the first half. The movie does get progressively funnier, so that the really strong bits are largely in the last section, where it kind of finds its subject — it’s what Hollywood charmingly called a “delayed fuck” picture, in which Grant and Sheridan spar, flirt, get married, and then have their honeymoon night endlessly delayed. And what delays it in this case is military red tape, a novel situation. And added to the sexual flirtation is sustained sleep deprivation.

For some reason, the sleepless hero is a staple of film noir, including Hawks’ own THE BIG SLEEP. (I just started reading Gregory McDonald’s Fletch books and the insomnia trope returns in Carioca Fletch.) Not so much in comedy, maybe because we know insomnia is kind of agonizing, not the short sharp shock of slapstick violence. And indeed, Hawks is mercilessly mean to Grant throughout the film, and it does feel like torture.

True, Cary’s character, a French (!) officer, is unsympathetically loutish to begin with, an aggressive and chauvinist skirt-chaser. The backstory of failed seduction and pranking that’s set up at the start is familiar from THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, hinting at HH’s script involvement there (but Charles Lederer is a credited co-writer on both). By the time romance has blossomed, though, we’re ready to forgive him, as Sheridan has. Not so Hawks.

Asides from finding Kafkaesque contrivances to keep Grant from the marital bed, or any bed at all, a persistent theme of emasculation is played out, culminating in the actualisation of the title with Grant in drag, wearing a horse’s mane for a wig. Along the way, there’s a series of bizarre but inescapable bits of sexual symbolism — a doorknob comes off in Grant’s hand, and the movie ends with a small key being chucked through a porthole — at which the Statue of Liberty immediately appears. One wonders if the whole film is a riff on post-war male anxieties — they take your uniform and gun away, and they expect you to get married and look after kids and other women’s stuff.

I wonder if this would be funnier with John Wayne — and this is literally the only Cary Grant comedy I can imagine saying that about.

Or Bogart?

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One Response to “The male must go through”

  1. Saturday Night Live did a sketch on the Hays foot-on-floor rule. Couldn’t find a free clip, but here’s a transcript:

    http://snltranscripts.jt.org/77/77ccinema.phtml

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