Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Perfect Woman is that it was made in 1949. Somehow it gives the impression of having been made much earlier. And perhaps that is why it fails to live up to its promise.
A rather dotty old dear of an absentminded professor who makes Fred MacMurray look like a memory expert (played by the ever reliable Miles Malleson) hires an aimless young man and his butler to test his latest creation – a robot he calls the “perfect woman” (because it never speaks and does everything it’s told). However, his bored and naive young niece decides to take its place on a whim.
The British made more than their share of excellent screwball comedies in the 30s and 40s. Sadly this wasn’t one of them, even with the presence of such talented players as Malleson and Stanley Holloway. They would have been enough to guarantee the success of most comedies.
There’s a lot of room for humor in the basic situation, as the robot has to be instructed by key words “casually” dropped into the conversation – which gives plenty of room for some marvelously silly dialogue and for the “robot” – or her double – to suddenly launch off in some unexpected direction. And to be fair, they do manage to get quite a few laughs this way – although one can’t help but think how much René Clair – or Buster Keaton – could have wrung out of it.
However, part of what makes the film feel dated is that they quite obviously want it to be a Wodehousian comedy. The problem is that P.G. Wodehouse was a far more gifted writer than most people realize (even if he didn’t have anything to say) and the world of Bertie and Jeeves was long gone before the end of World War One. True, the feckless young hero could as easily be Bertie Wooster or one of his friends, but it’s hard to capture that rather exotic creature on-screen (even Hugh Laurie, after a marvelous start, camped him up too much).
This film has, of course, been savaged by recent critics for its supposedly sexist attitude. Ironically, it clearly intends its title to refer not merely to the robot but to the flesh and blood girl as well. While it does make a lot of her physical charms, it is interesting to note that the girl matches a particularly British (and male) ideal: she launches into a knock-about adventure without hesitation, accepts a lot of indignities along the way without complaining, yet remains resolved to play it out for her uncle’s sake. She is the kind of girl that the hero marries in the Wodehouse novels, the kind of girl who would be described as “game” or a “good sport.” The kind of girl, in fact, who remains feminine while playing with the boys – and playing hard. I suppose that feminists would probably heap burning coals on this attitude as well – although I do have to wonder how many young women realize that even today a lot of men are out there looking for a good sport.
I also wonder whether the robot’s ultimate demise is caused not by a deliberate feature, as the Professor claims, but, as in this 1994 Dilbert page, he merely relabeled a programming glitch as a security measure.
(Movie available here.)