Have you ever had that moment after walking away from a heated debate, or lying in bed long after a discussion ended, and the perfect one liner pops in your head? That moment doesn’t exist in screwball comedy land. A time in filmmaking when physical gags were gunned down by quick fire dialogue. A place where everyone is wittier than the last and sharp as a… sharp thing.
Me and My Gal or Pier 13 is an early glimmer of screwball comedies to come when hits like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday proved Cary Grant didn’t breathe. But as Howard Hawks and the like warmed up for a decade of fun, Danny Dolan (Spencer Tracey) patrolled Pier 13, an easy beat with colourful characters and the beauty Helen Riley (Joan Bennett) behind a cash register.
Dolan is a straight character without flourish. Riley is a beauty without depth. But the two come to life in their verbal tennis matches across the counter, ending only because the diner has to close. The niche of screwball comedy revels in the larger than life wit of two characters, where Dolan has a comeback to every sentence and Riley flourishes in the middle ground of filmmaking when damsels in distress vanished from silent cinema and overpowering femme fatales met their match.
But Me and My Gal is particularly sweet because the immovable object and unstoppable force are on human scale. In one scene, the yet-to-be-official couple lie together on a couch in particularly awkward first date. An ingenious, archaic Annie Hall twist highlights the anxiousness behind the wit. The two talk aloud a facade and reveal their true feeling though voice over. Riley acts furious when Dolan kisses her, but thinks how thrilled she is that he did it.
Concurrently, a B plot line develops concerning Helen’s sister Kate (Marion Burns) as she becomes involved with her dangerous ex-lover Duke Castage (George Walsh). Duke’s crew learn of Kate’s position in a bank and exploit her affection to pull off a daring robbery.
This plot line only serves to water down a strong drink with characters of little interest or significance, hardly mixing with Dolan or Riley in any manner until the last moments. And by then it is too late. If it was an attempt to ground the film in reality, it only grounded it to a halt.
The question concerning Me and My Gal is, why does it deserve a place on a restricted list of films to see before you die? Countless cinematic gems are edged out in its favour.
Perhaps because it demonstrates the beginning of a half century long career of a Hollywood legend. Director Raoul Walsh not only made iconic films such as Objective Burma, Roaring Twenties, High Sierra and White Heat, he was an icon himself brandishing an eye patch as synonymous with directorial mystique as Cecil B. Demille’s jodhpurs or Fritz Lang’s convex monocle.
Me and My Gal is not the slickest of films, and not an essential film to see before you die, but with exchanges like –
Dolan: Give my regards to your wife.
Drunk: I’m not married.
Dolan: She’s a lucky woman.
It’s worth discovering. And maybe even jotting down a few lines in case they come in handy.
Amidst the cheers of a crowd going wild for the newly married couple, Pop Riley (J. Farrell MacDonald) turns to camera and breaks the fourth wall by telling us That’s All Folks!