Boy Meets Girl (1938) Starring: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Marie Wilson, Ralph Bellamy, Frank McHugh, Dick Foran, Bruce Lester. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Screenplay by Bella Spewack and Samuel Spewack. Based on a play by Bella Spewack and Samuel Spewack. Run Time: 86 minutes. U.S. B&W Comedy, Romance
While not a great film, Boy Meets Girl has the distinction of being the first onscreen teaming of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. The two would be teamed up nine times throughout their career, including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Cagney’s last film Ragtime (1981).
Cagney, perhaps best known at this point of his career as a gangster, plays Robert Law and O’Brien plays his writing partner J. Carlyle Benson. They are a pair of wacky writers working at Royal Studios, which is very reminiscent of Warner Bros., except Royal is on the market. They are assigned to write the new film for cowboy star Larry Toms (Dick Foran) for producer C. Elliott Friday (Ralph Bellamy). Part of their problem is inspiration, which comes in the form of commissary waitress Susan Seabrook (Marie Wilson), who is pregnant and faints in Friday’s office.
Law and Benson want to take care of Susie and arrange for her hospital care when she gives birth, but also for her financial future when they come up with the idea of teaming her yet unborn baby, Happy, with Toms in his next picture Golden Nuggets. The film turns out to be a big success. This gives Susie the chance to go to high school which has been her dream, while Happy works on his next pairing with Toms. But Toms doesn’t like playing second fiddle to a baby.
He and his agent Rossetti (Frank McHugh) dream up the idea of marrying Susie as a way of taking back Rodney Bowman (Bruce Lester), who had been fired by Friday from the film Young England.
Susie asks Law and Benson if she should accept Toms’ proposal and they tell her no, but ask her to leave them alone. They don’t spring into action until Rossetti tells him that he’s signed Toms to a new contract with Royal that includes Happy. He tells them that Susie thought they had grown tired of her and she was on her way to a premiere with Toms. Rossetti further tells them that with Toms having control of Happy, they could get kicked off the lot as revenge for having made fun of Toms.
They decide they have to get back control of Happy. The plan they devise is for Happy’s “real” father to show up at the movie premiere. They first call central casting until Rodney walks into the office, having been called to Friday’s office. They hire him to play the part, telling him that he’s making a trailer.
At the premiere of The White Rajah (a supposed Errol Flynn movie) at the Carthay Circle, Ronald Reagan plays the radio announcer. When Toms and Susie go to Reagan’s mike, Rodney comes forward to make a spectacle. He claims to be Happy’s father and then gives her a kiss. Back at Royal, Friday hears the radio broadcast as does studio boss BK Whitacre (Pierre Watkin), who orders Friday to get to the truth.
Rodney manages to escape the police, but doesn’t know what’s going on. Back at the studio, Toms tells Friday that he was embarrassed in front of his fans and refuses to work with Happy again or for Royal Studios. Law brings Rodney back to the studio and stashes him in an office. Benson, who has a high spending wife and needs to keep his job, gets Law to move Rodney, but when he goes to get him, he finds he’s escaped and is loose in the studio.
Susie comes back and tells them about what had happened at home. Happy has the measles. Studio security brings Rodney back to Friday’s office and blames Law and Benson. Law does some quick talking to counter his story. Rodney insists he was put up to the prank. Friday can’t wait to tell BK about them, who insists Friday fire them. Larry comes into Friday’s office because he caught the measles from Happy.
Cut to the hospital. Benson comes to visit Happy, whose room is across the hall from Toms, and runs into Susie. Benson confesses that he’s fallen on hard times. Law shows up, on his way back home to Vermont so he can write a novel. Benson tells Law that his wife, Pearl, left him, but confesses he wants her back. Law tries to get Rossetti to get Benson a job, but he refuses. While Law says good-bye to Happy, Benson begs Rossetti to get them a one picture deal somewhere to prevent Law from leaving. But before he can leave, a registered letter comes from Friday, firing Happy for being gone from the studio for two weeks. Law tries to leave, but Benson tries to talk him into staying, but Law is committed to leaving. But as a joke on Toms, Benson convinces Law to call their friend Jascha Alexander (Eddie Conrad) in Paris on his hospital bill. Law gets the idea to get Jascha to send a telegram from London, pretending to be the head of Teddington British studios, offering $5 million to buy Royal Studios as long as Happy is under long term contract.
Everything at Royal is in flux. Toms finds that he’s out and Susie shows up in Friday’s office while Law and Benson are in BK’s office drawing up Happy’s contract. Friday leaves Susie in his office so she can do her homework while he tries to get in on the new contract negotiations. Rodney shows up and asks Susie to marry him. She tells him that Happy’s father, Jack, was an accidental bigamist, whose Mexican divorce from his first wife was invalid. She sent him back to his first wife, who ended up shooting and killing him.
Rodney, who turns out to be a well-to-do Englishman, won’t take no for an answer and convinces her to take Happy out of films and come to England with him. Law and Benson try to make Rodney out to be a confidence man, but when Toms shows up with Major Thompson (James Stephenson) the Los Angeles representative from Teddington British, Thompson verifies that the $5 million offer is a fake. But he recognizes and vouches for Rodney, which is good enough for Susie.
With Happy leaving with mom for England, Friday wishes he could fire Law and Benson, but their contract is airtight. Friday is just happy to be through with babies, but that lasts only a few seconds, when his wife calls to tell him she’s pregnant. Law and Benson spin another baby-centric yarn and the movie ends.
While this is supposed to be a comedy, it is not really all that funny or as funny as it could be. Boy Meets Girl has many of the hallmarks of a screwball comedy. What it lacks is the rapid fire dialogue of say His Girl Friday (1940). The dialogue has humor, but it’s delivered a little too leisurely. While Cagney can do comedy, he doesn’t quite pull it off in this film. The plot is also more than a little far-fetched and the holes it leaves are just glossed over.
Boy Meets Girl also has a huge time issue that it never really addresses. When Susie is pregnant, Law and Benson pitch the idea for Golden Nuggets. It’s shot when Happy is 8 months old, but even after it’s released and they’re negotiating Happy’s next contract, Friday is still editing Young England, the same film that Rodney was an extra in when he met Susie. Young England has to be Olde England by that time, given the usual quick turnaround of films during the studio’s heydays, which the film takes place smack in the middle of.
It is interesting to note that Susie, who is pregnant at the beginning, is not legally married. An oddity considering the Production code had been in place since 1934. They try to address that with the story about the accidental bigamist she was married to when she became pregnant, but Happy, by any definition, would be a bastard.
Susie is played by Marie Wilson, the quintessential dumb blonde. Wilson made a splash in Satan Met a Lady (1934), the second, but not the best film adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. Some say her portrayal of Miss Murgatroyd in that film is the blueprint for Marilyn Monroe’s on-screen persona. Ironically, Monroe’s emergence on the scene spelled the end of Wilson’s film career. Wilson would have her biggest success as Irma Peterson, the lead of My Friend Irma, first on the radio series in 1947, then in two movies and finally on a TV series from 1952 to 1954.
Not the best pairing of Cagney and O’Brien and far from the best comedy Warner’s would produce, there is still some fun in watching Boy Meets Girl. The brief behind the scenes glimpses of Hollywood in the late 30’s: the Warner’s sound stages, the studio commissary and the arrival of stars at the premiere being broadcast over the radio, are interesting. As with any Warner Bros. film of the era there are plenty of character actors to note, including John Ridgely as Simmons the editor on Young England and a young Ronald Reagan as the radio announcer. I think he went on to something big later on, too.