Saturday, March 8, 2014

Some thoughts on the "boy meets girl" conflict

Recently I watched the 1934 film I've Got Your Number by director Ray Enright and it got me thinking about the "boy meets girl" stories told in films.

In this film, Terry (Pat O'Brien) and John (Allen Jenkins) are telephone repairmen who are constantly raising the ire of their boss Mr. Flood (Eugene Pallette). John does virtually all of the work while Terry romances and/or verbally spars with the variety of beautiful women they encounter at almost every job. Terry only really proves his worth when thrust into dangerous situations, such as when he has to cut the power lines on a building during a fire. The story truly gets underway when Terry and John are sent to test the telephone connection at a hotel where Marie (Joan Blondell) works on the local switchboard. While John does the work, Terry flirts with Marie, but Marie isn't interested.

Now, here's where I had some issues with the film, but in order to explain why I don't think the "boy meets girl" comedy elements work here, I'll have to compare two other movies where - under somewhat similar circumstances - the elements do work. First, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940):

In this film, newpaper editor Walter (Cary Grant) desperately wants to force reporter Hildy (Rosalind Russell) to both return to his employ and marry him. To accomplish this, Walter is willing to resort to many underhanded tricks, primarily focusing on Hildy's all-too-earnest beau Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), who repeatedly winds up in trouble with the law. However, Walter's winning move is to involve Hildy in the plight of Earl Williams; she wants the story badly and as the plot progresses, we see she not only matches Walter in their verbal sparring, but in sheer tenacity; she and Walter truly are equals, unlike the mismatched Bruce.

Then, Howard Hawks' Bringing up Baby (1938):

Flighty heiress Susan (Katherine Hepburn) repeatedly causes trouble for David (Cary Grant), initially through a series of accidents. Later, she grows fond of David and begins deliberately causing trouble to involve him with, or placing him into situations where he has no choice but to help her out; after a very trying ordeal, David ultimately realizes he loves Susan in spite of it all.

Now, back to I've Got Your Number:

In their first encounter when Marie spurns Terry, he reacts by taking apart her switchboard from the back; crouched behind the board he can fiddle with the machine without Marie seeing him and begins sending her calls requesting a date (which she repeatedly refuses) and pushes her jack out of the board so she can't receive other people's calls. This is childish behaviour, but somewhat playful - and anyway, it does nothing to endear him to Marie. The larger issue, I think, is whether Terry is endearing to the audience.

Subsequently, Marie is at home, cooking dinner. Her phone begins ringing, but no one is on the other end. Since When a Stranger Calls won't be filmed for another 40 years, Marie assumes her phone is out of order; she runs downstairs and uses a pay phone to request a repairman. She's only back in her apartment for a minute before Terry appears at the door. Marie instantly realizes Terry is behind her problem, but again brushes off his request for a date as she lets him in to fix the phone. Terry proceeds to bother her as she tries to finish fixing dinner. When the food is finally on the table, Terry walks over and flips the table upside-down. Noting her dinner is ruined, he observes she has no reason to refuse his date. She finally agrees.

I think this is possibly the worst "boy meets girl" scenario I've seen in a 1930s film. How is this romantic? How is this funny? For all the manipulations of Walter in His Girl Friday, he remains charming - and reserves his worst behaviour for put-upon Bruce; he and Hildy have undeniable chemistry throughout. In Bringing up Baby, when Susan deliberately ruins David's life (for instance, sending his clothes out to be cleaned, forcing him to wear two different humiliating outfits in a row), it's demeaning, but stops short of being crude. Terry loafing on the job while he interferes with Marie's job - then stalking her - then flipping over a table to get his way - it's not endearing, funny or romantic. It's boorish and petulent.

Perhaps Terry's behaviour in I've Got Your Number could be seen as someone who knows a lot about romance from books and movies, but can't determine how to act that material out in the real world; like Susan's belief in Bringing Up Baby that David's problems with her stem from romantic attraction, Terry behaves as though Marie's refusal to date him masks a genuine attraction; it doesn't seem to occur to him (or the director, actor or screenwriter) that perhaps he's simply a loathsome human being. Heck, if anyone in real life tried to keep up the type of 24-hour insanity Susan and Walter provoked in their movies, they'd appear much less likeable than the characters who inspired them.

So, I guess I'm saying I've Got Your Number is not a lost classic. You could use the same title and setup for a slick serial killer film, though. At the very least, it's not as terrible as Men Are Such Fools).

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