Thursday, October 1, 2020
Howard Hawks | I Was a Male War Bride
by Douglas Messerli
Charles Lederer, Leonard Spigelgass, and Hagar Wilde (screenplay, based on a book by Henri Rochard), Howard Hawks (director) I Was a Male War Bride / 1949
Film historians have recounted the near-disastrous filming of Howard Hawks 1949 movie, I Was a Male War Bride. Shooting much of it in post-War II Germany, Hawks and his crew managed to capture some wonderful scenes of the still mostly bombed-out cities, particularly Heidelberg. But the cold European Fall of 1948, when the film was in process, resulted in a series of cast and crew illnesses that delayed the production for months, resulting in a total budget of over two-million dollars.
First the director broke out in hives over his entire body. Cary Grant, one of the film’s stars, developed hepatitis complicated by jaundice, closing down production for three months until he recovered and gained back the 30 pounds he had lost. When screenwriter Charles Lederer also became ill, he called upon his friend Orson Welles to write part of a short scene that remained unfinished.
Perhaps this accounts for what several critics found as a diffused and unfulfilling story for the early half of this work. Writing in The New York Times Bosley Crowther, for example, writes
“That gay old Hollywood practice of shooting a picture ‘off the cuff,’ which meant making up the story and the situations as the filming went along, appears to have been the one followed by Howard Hawks and Twentieth Century-Fox in banging out I Was a Male War Bride, which came to the Roxy yesterday. We don't say it was, necessarily. Three writers are credited with the script and the whole thing is said to be based on the actual story of one Henri Rochard. But the flimsiness of the film's foundations and the disorder of its episodes provoke the inevitable impression that it all fell together en route. Not that this mode of construction is incongruous to the brand of farce that is wildly tossed off in this picture when it finally slips into full speed. The illusion of spontaneity that accumulates in the last half is entirely appropriate to the nonsense that glibly and haphazardly occurs.”
I don’t know whether Crowther was playing on the pun “gay” in his review, but I’d argue that the first half of Hawks’ work, much as in his early Grant film, Bring Up Baby, sets up the story that will be played out in the second half by broadly hinting to an audience in the know, that any shift of the film to conventional mores is an intentional sham. In this case, his soon-to-be marriage with a woman in the later half—which requires him, most queerly, to become his own wife—is necessary to please unknowing viewers and get his gender-bending homosexual story past the censors.
Indeed, Grant spends the first half demonstrating his absolute distaste for the woman, Lt. Catherine Gates (Sheridan), with whom he has shared a previous “mission,” delivering up her some of the most intimate items her clothing in one of the early scenes, leading her peers to believe it might be something she left behind, rather the presenting the fact that their laundry has been accidently shipped to each other. What has he might have been doing with those woman’s clothes gets comically answered in the final scenes.
In 1949 when senator Joseph McCarthy was already naming Communists in government organizations and looking for them in early red lists of Hollywood figures, as well as preparing to launch along with others an organized assault of homosexuals in the US and in Europe which would fall under the rubric “the Lavender Menace,* it is amazing that Hawks and his writers, Lederer, Leonard Spigelgass, and Hagar Wilde, got away with a screenplay laden with so many gay sexual allusions.
But then Lederer, nephew of actor Marion Davies, and who had long worked with Ben Hecht who described him as an incessant practical joker often pairing up with Harpo Marx to play jokes on Randolph Hearst’s guests,** was by 1949 a well experienced and respected writer (he worked with Hawks previously on the brilliant movie His Girl Friday); Leonard Spiegelgass was the writer in his long career of scripts for 11 Academy Award-winning films and others. Among them was Big Street, Mystery Street, A Majority of One (based on his play), Silk Stockings, and Gypsy, and he himself was rumored to have been gay; Hagar Wilde wrote the original story for and worked on the screenplay of Bringing Up Baby. In short, perhaps that brilliant trio explains their running gags that establish Grant’s French officers actual inaccessibility to the opposite sex, which is really what I Was a Male War Bride is all about, or, to put it as they did after the previous World War, “How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?”
Let us begin with the absolute necessity in any Cary Grant film: a woman or several women make nearly all decisions, dominating and blocking nearly all of his mostly flustered attempts to regain any power, identity, or dignity. In the previous mission, for example, for some misperceived transgression Lt. Gates (Ann Sheridan) has thrown French officer Henri Rochard into a tank of blue dye, the color which is perceived in Russia, for example, as describing someone who is gay, just as for a long while in the US gays were defined by purple or lavender. Interestingly, even after several months, Rochard has not been able to wash the blue color out of his skin.
In one of the first scenes of the film, Rochard, attempting to determine the various acronyms posted on the doors where he has been called to a meeting, is fairly successful in interpreting some of them (WAIRCO, for example is, he whispers to himself, is probably War Administration Industrial Relations Coordinates Office) until he arrives at a door saying LADIES, in front of which he stands for a few moments attempting to decode its meaning while wondering whether to enter or remain outside.
When he does find the proper office, he is told by the woman commander that he is to be accompanied by Gates on his new mission. Troubled by having to face the woman with whom he has had so many previous run-ins he attempts to ask if there isn’t someone else who might accompany him. Gates, apparently, is the most capable as well as being the only one available. As the Major asserts, “Gates, she’s your man!” “Wish she were!” the Grant character mumbles.
Soon after when Gates attempts to describe to a colleague just how terrible it has been to work with Rochard, whom she defines as someone who will “run after anything in skirts,” Rochard protests: “Why did you say I run after any girl in skirts?” Gates shoots back; “I say anything in skirts,” suggesting perhaps that Rochard is equally interested in any male in drag, the issue that will soon be the major subject of the picture.
Of course, there are no jeeps available for their planned journey, so they have to commission a motorcycle with a sidecar for riding. Rochard, being a foreigner, does not have the proper license, but Gates has the proper document in hand, and off they go, leaving behind the sidecar with the displeased Rochard much like a skit in a Marx Brothers movie.
Later, after losing their way—one of the subthemes of the film is not being able to find one’s way among the coded messages and lack of proper signage—almost being hurled down river through the rapids of a powerful damn and numerous other indignities suffered primarily by Rochard, they finally wind up at their destination in Bad Nauheim and find an inn for the night.
After all their adventures by motor bike and boat, Gate’s back and neck are aching, and Rochard is about to bring her some rubbing alcohol, a towel, and his gentle messaging fingers. As he knocks on her bedroom door she at first contemplates refusing entry to the man she suspects of being a rude and improper lecher. Finally, she asks: “Who is it?”
gates: What do you want?
rochard: My slippers.
When he does finally manage to slip in and successfully allow her to slip away into sleep he discovers that he has not left behind “his slippers” but his route of exiting the “ball,” as the doorhandle falls off both inside and out. For propriety’s sake and to simply not awaken this mad lioness, he is forced to sit up the entire night in a most uncomfortable chair. (It’s strange having seen this film, just after watching Paul Morrissey’s Flesh where poor Joe Dalessandro after a hard day of hustling finds it nearly impossible to get a good night’s sleep; for another of Hawks’ subthemes is the impossibility of Grant’s character to find a bed anywhere in which he might rest his worn-out body). Of course, when she awakens to find him still in her room, there is hell to pay until the proprietress of the inn reveals that the doorknob needs to be fixed.
From these few examples, anyone can get the idea of the first half of the film as it attempts to set up the fact that when Rochard finally does marry Gates it is only a convention created to please the convention-minded audience—once the couple have exchanged rings, three times in fact, the writers loosen up on Rochard’s disqualifications for being a proper heterosexual partner to turn their attentions on the ways in which the society, using the synecdoche of the military establishment, defines not only marriage, but sexual identity, and gender.
Just as they are about to celebrate their wedding night, Gates’ military attachment is ordered back to the US, which means that her new husband must become the male equivalent—of which there appear to be no previous examples—of a war bride. In short Mr. Rochard must become Mrs. Rochard in the many forms they are required to fill out. As a military lawyer advises them, “I was thinking of you [pointing out Rochard] as the bride. It says spouses not sex.” Rochard’s rejoinder is one of the last gestures to clear the cobwebs away from anyone’s imagination that this character is mimetically available to marry a woman: “The process of turning into a woman is enormously complicated.”
As they begin to actually fill out the paperwork it becomes clear to the always befuddled Grant: “I am my own wife,” this long before Doug Wright’s 2003 play by the same name based on the famed German lesbian, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Rochard goes on, in filling out the application, to knock down any gender limitations—and here you have to give Hawks and his writers credit for totally breaking through the barrier of even their codes—insisting Gates fill in one box that he is “expecting,” a joke used later as a coded way of hinting about Rock Hudson’s homosexuality in Pillow Talk of a decade later and of declaring Jacques Demy’s bisexuality in his 1973 film A Slightly Pregnant Man.
After many further “complications,” including a Private from Brooklyn suggesting that if the now utterly exhausted Rochard were already in New York he could have slept with his old man, all the plot truly requires is the tried and true cinematic trope of cross-dressing, Grant appearing with a horse-tail bob in a long skirt and silk hose—not a very pretty sight, but like Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, just enough to wow any sailor and get the expectant couple on board the ship sailing to New York. Having tossed any sense of reality out the window with it the key to unlock their prison door or to explain the logic of this plot, the couple sails past France’s gift to the open arms that may be awaiting them. Now if they can only get through Customs.
*Leslie Feinberg catalogues just a few of the events that shortly after this film led to increasing attacks on gay Americans and Europeans:
“In the 1950s, more bombshells were to detonate in the overall offensive against the "Lavender Menace," which had become a foil for the right-wing in the domestic Cold War.
In 1951, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two gay double-agents working in British intelligence, fled to the Soviet Union. This was grist for the mill, linking homosexuality with communist "treason."
In 1952, worldwide publicity accompanied the entrapment and arrest of British mathematician and computer innovator Alan Turing. He was one of 1,686 men rounded up and charged with "gross indecency with males." Turing had risen to fame during World War II after he deciphered a Nazi secret code.”
** Hecht wrote: "I have met a new friend. He has pointed teeth, pointed ears, is nineteen years old, completely bald and stands on his head a great deal. His name is Charles Lederer. I hope to bring him back to civilization with me.
Los Angeles, October 1, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (October 2020).