Bright Lights Film Journal

the Return of the “Emotional Terrorist”

Getting his typecast as the dunken son in HOLIDAY, Monroe Owsley (pictured with Thelma Todd in a still from CALL HER SAVAGE) will be familiar to any pre-code enthusiast as the “swine” who seduces the easily seduced heroines, impregnating and abandoning, blackmailing and tom-catting, social climbing and dragging innocent girls down with him on his fall, all with a plastered sneer as he leans forward with his weird nose just begging to be punched. He makes Tom Cruise seem humble, makes Richard Gere seem like the Buddha. He’s cast to make the other guy’s gentle dull decency seem sexy by contrast. He’s everything loathsome about confident playas, distilled. He’d do well on! But Owsley died young in a car accident and manipulative jerks like his characters became less popular as time went on. There was no time for cowards when WW2 rolled around, and afterwards, Breen’s code made sure girls were protected from tomcat tricks, and by the 1960s there was birth control so no one cared.

What’s sad is that 75 years later and this “emotional terrorist” sort of playa dude has made an onscreen comeback in the recent slew of Apatow-aping gross-out romcoms where dull womanizer sees error of his ways and we’re supposed to applaud when he finally stops insulting women to their face and/or making fart noises at the dinner table. This weekend sees the release of MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL, where we have comedian Dane Cook as a sort of Monroe Owsley for hire. His buddy Jason Biggs hires him to date and annoy Kate Hudson with the ill-conceived idea that will make her see him (Biggs) as more than just a nerdy friend. Instead of course, the plan backfires, and love…. life’s sweetest reward… etc. Dane has to mend his ways, as Hudson calls his macho bluff and viola! There’s nothing underneath.

What made the pre-code Oswley films like TEN CENTS A DANCE and CALL HER SAVAGE so exceptional, was that Owsley was a swine but allowed to be somewhat interesting and whole; as his cringing and impinging increased, we saw more of the terrified ego underneath the elan. Even as a whiny “type” he’s got more soul and character than the three leads of BEST FRIEND’S GIRL put together (not counting Alec Baldwin who doesn’t have enough screen time). That says something about the slow sad slide of masculinity and maturity in this country–and in cinema. While Biggs’ nerd frets and whines, like a kid on Xmas who didn’t get the toy he wants, the jilted “good guy” in these pre-code films just goes about his business with grace and dignity. He wouldn’t dream of hiring an emotional terrorist, any more than Franklin Delano Roosevelt would to spur us into battle against the Nazi menace.

A true parable of its time, MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL gives all the wrong advice to all the young dudes: it tells them to set the bar low to start, so the teacher sees some progress without one actually having to make any, and that hot chicks are as much Esquire-endorsed commodities as gold watches and Italian shoes; if she wont sleep with you, she’s basically stealing from you in advance of purchase; and of course, the concepts underlying “emotional terrorism” are eerily similar to our own war in Iraq- just substitute the U.S. for Kate Hudson and the satire writes itself!