beyond the call of duty
by Douglas Messerli
Mack Sennett (screenplay), F. Richard Jones (director) Yankee Doodle in Berlin / 1919
Basically a US propaganda film about the Yankee battles against the Germans in World War I, the Mack Sennett silent film from June 29, 1919, directed by F. Richard Jones, Yankee Doodle in Berlin was Sennett’s most expensive film to date.
Quite preposterously, given the populist propagandistic intentions of Jones’ work the plot of this film is devoted almost entirely—when the movie isn’t concerned with representing the silly presumptions of the Prussian army and the German leaders, Crown Prince Freddy, The Kaiser, and Von Hindenberg—to the exploits of the Yankee volunteer Captain Bob White (Bothwell Browne) who is sent into the heart of the German headquarters to spy, dressed primarily as an alluring female singer/dancer who manages to get all three of the major figures Freddy (Malcolm St. Clair), Von Hindenberg (Bert Roach), and Kaiser Wilhelm, King of Prussia (Ford Sterling) to take her into their arms and in the instance of the latter into his bed.
Early in his volume The Celluloid Closet Vito Russo argues that it is was inevitable that the numerous early crossdressing films were not actually sexual; the humor and its social significance arose simply from the fact of a male dressing as a female which would eventually become simply part of the stock comic repertoire of many a heterosexual actor that today’s audiences recognize in figures such as Milton Berle, Tyler Perry, or Barry Humphries (Dame Edna). These characters were not meant to be truly sexual beings but existed, Russo argues, in the category of sissies, males who simply did not perform as males should or, in the case of crossdressing, mocked both the ridiculousness of males attempting to become females or satirized those of the female gender itself.
Consequently, after the early teens of the 20th century, we do not see full movies dedicated to their art. The wonderful crossdressing performances by Charles Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, and Stan Laurel are brief representations of the “abnormality” of male behavior simply dedicated to making us laugh.
But in Bothwell Browne’s case or even in the example of his major drag competitor Julian Eltinge, I’d argue that Russo is mistaken, and the performances they give allow for a fuller transformational tradition that resulted in later performances such as Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot (1959) in which his character finally became convinced he might actually prefer living as the opposite sex, or Michel Serrault’s Albin in La Cage aux Folles (1978) who simply feels more normal and comfortable in female attire. Although made clear that out of costume Bob White is a strapping athletic normative heterosexual man who, in the end, makes a heroic rope climb into an airplane to escape the German forces, throughout most of this odd film he is truly beautiful as a woman, deftly flirting with and sexually engaging with all three of the major German figures—as well as numerous of their underlings. Like many of the critics of his day, I find Browne’s performances as females much more convincing and alluring than Eltinge’s.
Browne, openly gay, did not like being
called a female impersonator. He insisted that "A female impersonator is a
man who puts on women's clothes and prances about. I go much deeper into the
role than that. I study women, I am an actor of feminine roles." And in
this, his only film role, Browne makes crossdressing an extraordinarily powerful
Not only does White capture his lovers’ hearts, but he obtains the Kaiser’s general war plan which, through a series of hand signals, he is able to convey to his co-conspirator, portraying a scarecrow in a nearby field, which results with the Allied command forces quickly engaging in huge land battles and air force bombings that help to defeat the Germans.
If there was ever an example of the power of being ambi-genderous Browne’s White reveals it, turning what is otherwise a cornball comedy vision of German World War I incompetency into a wartime sexual outing that matches Marlene Dietrich’s male drag portrayals in Morocco or stands equal to the dancing, song-miming trio of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert as they capture the Aussie Outback.
Los Angeles, October 9, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).