Hollywood has always liked stories about rich people pretending to be domestics, usually not successfully; though William Powell was an exception as an unsurpassed butler in My Man Godfrey. There is often overcooked toast involved in these kinds of tales. Merrily We Live (Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne) and If Only You Could Cook (Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur) are also lesser known entries into this genre. However, what all three movies have in common is that it is the man who is pretending to be a domestic when he is, in reality, quite wealthy.
Girl Trouble takes a different tack, in that the domestic is a woman and she’s no longer rich. Without being a war propaganda film, the movie is firmly set during WWII and much of what the characters are doing are the result of the war. There is June Delaney (Joan Bennett) who has lost all her fortune because, for some reason, she can no longer get her money out of London (presumably due to the war). There is also the South American playboy, Pedro Sullivan (Don Ameche), who has come to America to negotiate a loan for his father’s rubber plantation so that they can start selling rubber to the Americans. It is a loan that the US government very much wants, partly because they are in desperate need of rubber and partly to cement good relations with South America – both rubber and South American relations really being genuine concerns of the US at that time.
And then there is Mrs. Rowland (Billie Burke), who is the ultimate in fluttery women, always organizing charities (usually for the war effort) and red cross meetings. And June seems to have an awful lot of spoiled, rich friends (some in uniform) who go from home to home, participating in these meetings. Even the fluttery and spoiled must help the war effort.
Because June is now broke, she must rent out her apartment and Pedro Sullivan (his name is explained by the fact that his father came from America) must stay in New York for a while, so he rents her apartment and mistakes her for the maid because she is dressed like a maid and running the vacuum. June’s friend Helen (Helene Reynolds) thinks it’s all very funny and is glad that June will no longer be in competition for the men now that she is poor. However, when Pedro asks June to stay on as his maid, June says yes and she has the advantage over her friend in that, though he thinks she’s the maid, it allows her to be on the spot where he is most of the time.
Joan Bennett is by far the calmest screwball comedienne I have ever seen. No matter what happens, like burnt toast, a vacuum that spits dust all over her dog, Mrs. Rowland taking Pedro’s clothes away with her for charity (she believes they are June’s father’s clothes), she always remains calm and never visibly reacts. There is no making faces, wringing hands, screaming or looking frazzled. She simply moves on, unflappably, with whatever she is doing, finding some way out of her difficultly or coming up with some sort of lie when necessary. She even takes the news about her impoverishment relatively philosophically and never utters one word of complaint. Perhaps complaining would have seemed unseemly during the war.
It’s not the greatest comedy ever made; it’s only 81 minutes and there’s not a tremendous amount of character depth, but it’s cute and I especially enjoyed Joan Bennett’s comedic style. I was also fascinated with how effortlessly WWII grounded it is. Even the decision to have the romantic lead be from South America is partially war related since South America was about the only continent that didn’t have most of it’s young men in uniform or off fighting
June also has the cutest little black terrier (I think it’s a Scottish Terrier) who is always frisking about and accompanied by lively Scottish (or Irish) music. What is also pretty funny is how blithely unaware Pedro and June are of the massive impropriety of having a female maid living in the same apartment with her male employer. Whenever people hear about the arrangement, they are shocked, but June and Pedro don’t seem to notice.
The irony is that he is a playboy and isn’t all that good at his business. It is June who seems to display business acumen. She reads his papers and asks him intelligent questions that he can’t answer and is also the one to resolve his business difficulties. For being a spoiled, rich young lady, she turns out to be pretty competent, except she can’t make toast.