Although I had seen many of his movies, I didn’t know anything about George Stevens until I read Mark Harris’ excellent book Five Came Back. I had no idea that he had been present at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, and that he had made a documentary about it that was only ever shown to the judges at the Nuremburg trial. According to that book, Stevens’ war experiences influenced his post-war films, with Shane in particular being aimed at deglorifying violence because Stevens had formed such a distaste for it after the war.
Which is why watching this movie – the last film Stevens made before he shipped out to the war – is such an odd experience. I think I would have had a completely different feeling for it had I not known anything about Stevens; it’s the sort of light trifle that was common at the time, in the same vein as Bringing Up Baby or some other Katherine Hepburn-ish film where an independent and proud woman falls in love and decides overnight to become a housewife. But watching it knowing that darkness is around the corner changes the way the movie feels.
The set up for the movie is a big part of that. The premise is that there is a housing shortage in D.C. because the U.S. has just entered into the War, and a ton of people are streaming into the capital because they are about to be employed in the war effort. An uptight woman leases out one room of her apartment to an old man who has come to town to make a presentation to congress. While she’s at work the old man sub-leases half of his room to a handsome man from California who is trying to get a few affairs in order before he ships out. At first she’s angry to find another boarder in her house… but before too long boom, love happens.
This movie was made so early in the war effort that it was possible to have some optimism about her would-be beau’s chances once he’s been deployed; the movie ends with him, newly married, reporting to duty, which it treats as an appropriate ending for a comedy. Unfortunately, I don’t share the same optimism about his time in the service that the movie does.
This movie is not perfect – it definitely begins to run out of steam halfway through after it goes from screwball comedy to romantic comedy, and the slow evolution of the old man character from busybody to total dick is pretty irritating – but it still has some merit as a portrait of pre-war America made just as America was mobilizing for war, and the inherent irony of knowing more about how the war will turn out than the people that made the film can provide some pretty interesting subtexts.