Boy Meets Girl (1938) DVD Review: Recommended Neglected Screwball Comedy Antics

James Cagney and Pat O'Brien pull no punches in this biting satire of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
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When one hears a saying like "boy meets girl", an instant (usually negative) image of a sappy Hollywood romantic comedy - or worse, a sappy coming-of-age sitcom - is almost immediately conjured up. Fortunately, the 1938 satire Boy Meets Girl more than exceeds any preconceived notions those of us who have lived that same Hollywood film ten times before (thank you, Mr. Bowie) may hold. At the same time, Boy Meets Girl represents two styles of comedy we genuinely do not see in the world of American film anymore: the screwball comedy (which essentially died in the '40s) and the actual mocking of the hallowed, holy land of Hollywood (which effectively died in the '90s with An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn).

Here, in one of their nine feature-length starring roles together, tough guy James Cagney and nice guy Pat O'Brien throw out everybody's preconceived notions of their respectable personas in order to lap it up as two extremely uncouth screenwriters. In the past, the writing duo of J. Carlyle Benson (O'Brien) and Robert Law (Cagney, whose character is obviously the grandfather of Scott Baio's epically-named attorney on Arrested Development) have been fired from every studio in town because of their outrageous antics. But their recent employment at Royal Studios has resulted in one romantic hit after another, every single one of them staying true to the sickening formula of "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" - something they've been lazily doing for so long that it's all they know how to do now.

Well, that, and annoy their producer, C.F. Friday (Ralph Bellamy) - a pompous twit of an executive (read: typical Hollywood producer) who can't distinguish a trombone from a trumpet - with the kind of outrageous antics that the Marx Brothers were really employing (and then some) over at MGM around the same time. Though assigned with writing the latest script for the studio's talentless cowboy star Larry Toms (Dick Foran), Benson and Law would prefer to slack off, mostly because they have nothing to offer except the same old story. But that all changes once a commissary waitress faints in Friday's office, subsequently revealing that she is pregnant. This sparks the boys' imaginations: a star is born (literally). Tinseltown is about to have a new idol - one where talent isn't at all necessary.

Marie Wilson is the new mother of a newfound (and deliberately ridiculous) child star, Frank McHugh is Foran's shady agent, and Bruce Lester is a first-time extra whose concerns about his own costume leads to his own abrupt retirement from the industry, but who also develops a mutual spark of romance with Ms. Wilson. An unknown Ronald Reagan appears as an announcer at a (Warner Bros.) premiere of Errol Flynn's latest film, "The White Rajah" (an in-joke: Flynn actual wrote and submitted a script by that name, which was rejected for being too weak; reportedly, the actor did not find the gag funny). Cagney forces Lester to stir up some bad publicity by posing as Wilson's son's father at the event in front of the world, giving Lester a brief opportunity to publicly push Reagan around (which we all owe the South African-born Lester a debt of gratitude for today).

Originally a Broadway play by Bella and Sam Spewack (who adapted their own hit into a screenplay), Boy Meets GirlĀ is a riotous, biting satire of a still somewhat infant but already self-important film industry. Cagney especially seems to enjoy using every ounce of energy the cinematic great held, whether he's breaking out into a casual tap dancing routine while others are trying to talk business, breaking into Ralph Bellamy's booze, or breaking up other productions with O'Brien. O'Brien plays it pretty straight for the most part, but never hesitates to take a pratfall when he knows it's time to do so (witness the memorable conclusion of Cagney's impromptu dance). The film's supporting cast, from Marie Wilson to her minor potential love interest, Bruce Lester, also submit fine performances throughout.

What's more, director Lloyd Bacon and his screenwriters fully realize child actors - especially infant ones - are extremely cumbersome, and employ their own sparingly. So if you're worried about seeing a movie that focuses too much on a cute little baby, rest easy. Likewise, if you're determined to see a biting screwball comedy satirizing the film industry of the late '30s, you can do no better than Boy Meets Girl. Once you get that unnecessary image of a sappy romantic comedy out of your head, that is. The Warner Archive presents this extremely funny, rarely-seen gem in the best-possible condition (some scenes show a little wear, but they're not distracting) with the film's original theatrical trailer as a bonus.

Highly recommended.

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