In a time where laughs didn't come easy, Hollywood found ample material for humor in the World War II era housing shortage. The mini-genre met with varying success, from the entertaining but laugh deficient Government Girl (1943) starring Olivia de Havilland to the bona-fide Frank Capra classic The More the Merrier (1943). Now available from Warner Archive, The Doughgirls (1944) and Pillow to Post (1945) fall somewhere between these two. They approach the scramble for housing with relentless good cheer and undoubtedly succeeded in raising wartime audience moral.
Pillow to Post is the least substantial of the two, but it is a consistently entertaining effort. With the exception of some icky sexual politics that could not be laughed off so easily today, it is never less than pleasant. Pre-noir Ida Lupino is endearing as the daughter of a wealthy oil-drilling equipment tycoon who wants to help the war effort by becoming a salesperson for her father.
Lupino hits the road, and finds she has a hard time being taken seriously. When she finally does make a sale at a company near a military base, it is on the condition that she go on a date with the executive making the buying decision. In typical 1940s fashion, this is approached lightly, but at least Lupino manages to keep her dignity and avoid being pawed.
While she is closing the deal the sleepless saleswoman needs a place to stay. After exhausting all her options, Lupino chances into an auto-court near the military base that is strictly for married couples. Desperate to get some sleep, she takes a room before producing a husband. A chance meeting with a helpful Lieutenant (William Prince) solves that problem when he agrees to pose as her spouse to secure the room, but leads to several more.
Of course Lupino and Prince butt heads a bit and then become fond of each other. They are a charming pair; not hilarious together, but amusing enough to make you smile. Though it turns out I've seen a few of Prince's films, I couldn't recall seeing him before and I enjoyed him here. He's one of those handsome, light-hearted actors who pinch-hit for the studio stars who went off to fight in the war. The actor would later thrive in a lengthy television career.
With an appealing pair of romantic leads and lots of activity at the auto-court, Pillow to Post could rate as a light entertainment, but there are a couple of unusual elements that elevate it to must-see for noir and music fans. The first is the fascinating novelty of seeing eternal villain Sydney Greenstreet in a comedy role. Though he is still plenty menacing as Prince's base commander, the actor gets a chance to be silly and it suits him. The other high point is a criminally brief appearance by 22-year-old Dorothy Dandridge in a nightclub scene with Louis Armstrong. Their bubbly rendition of Wat'cha Say? could have been slotted into most any other comedy of the age, and here it is a sublime moment in an otherwise mildly amusing film.
While it can be hit or miss in its chaotic pursuit of laughs, The Doughgirls benefits from bigger comic talents. It's got an enormous starring cast, with Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith, and Jane Wyman as former showgirls, Jack Carson as a sexually, and otherwise, frustrated newlywed husband of the latter, Charlie Ruggles as his boss and Eve Arden as a Russian guerilla fighter. All of these people and more crowd into the Washington D.C. bridal suite of Wyman and Carson, most of them desperate for a place to stay.
There's never a moment to breathe as the characters scramble to fulfill their needs, which are inevitably at odds with just about everyone else. Wyman is equal parts amusing and irritating as the more boneheaded than blushing bride, but Ann Sheridan and Alexis Smith are sharp and hilariously entitled as her couch-surfing friends. The three of them were exhilarating to watch: slim, elegant, with perfectly groomed hair, nails like talons and impeccable suits, looking like they are outfitted for a war of their own which they are certain to win.
While the cast is uniformly good, Sheridan and Smith are the highlights here. They plunge into their roles with fearless comic glee, taking control of every situation and making certain they have a good time along the way. Sheridan is at her best when she's bold and confident like this, demonstrating that it is only a man's world in name. And why wasn't Smith given more comic roles? Maybe she had the features of the girl who would try to steal your boyfriend, but she had the chops to make people laugh and adore her much like Lombard. Though Eve Arden's Russian soldier speaks in that simple-minded idiotic way that every character with a foreign accent seemed to in classic Hollywood, I found myself laughing anyway. She practically insists that you humor her; I don't think this role would have worked with any other actress.
You get caught up in the energy of all that activity, and it is all helped along by a cast with great comic timing and chemistry.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.