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I Was a Male War Bride

I Was a Male War Bride
Fox Home Entertainment
1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 103 min. / You Can't Sleep Here / Street Date January 6, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan. Kenneth Tobey, Randy Stuart
Cinematography Osmond Borradaile, Norbert Brodine
Art Direction Albert Hogsett, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor James B. Clark
Original Music Cyril Mockridge
Written by Charles Lederer, Leonard Spigelgass, Hagar Wilde from a story by Henri Rochard
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Directed by Howard Hawks

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This very light comedy is bolstered by agreeable performances and authentic European settings. Cary Grant plays a French officer without a hint of a French accent and gets away with it; Ann Sheridan once again proves her mettle as a light comedienne, even if a lot of the gags seem more appropriate for a Laurel & Hardy short subject. It's the perfect film to discuss the style of director Howard Hawks - besides sharing the same writer, the film stylistically most resembles The Thing from Another World, believe it or not.


French Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) works in occupied Germany with American Lt. Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan). They fight like cats and dogs until an afternoon in a haystack seals their engagement. Getting the Frenchman into the Army's war bride program is an exercise in red tape - nobody's set up to handle a male war bride.

I Was a Male War Bride was a gift to auteurist film critics of the late 1960s. Considered a minor entry in the Howard Hawks film book, it nonetheless exhibits all of the Hawksian themes needed to tie his career into a neat, consistent package. It's a screwball comedy in military mode, using the same lack of communication and 'creative obstinacy' situations as Bringing Up Baby or Man's Favorite Sport?

Poor Cary Grant plays straight man to Ann Sheridan's jokes. The script runs countless variations on the emasculation of man, with Grant suffering indignities based mostly on subservience to Sheridan's authority. The good-natured premise is that men and women are incompatible but inseparable, with the slightly misogynistic idea that the only harmonious ground of communication between the sexes is in bed.

In terms of male humiliation, War Bride fits right in with the other two movies. Captain Rochard gets a white stripe painted up his uniform, and (horrors) must ride in a motorcycle sidecar while the pants-wearing Sheridan does the driving. There's plenty of verbal innuendo, as when we're told Grant couldn't face down a bull on a German farm. Their assignment starts right off with Sheridan warning the amorous Frenchman that she's bringing a knife with her, and that if he puts his hands on her, she'll cut off "various personal parts that you're going to miss, you can bet!" You can't get more explicit than that.

The final ignominy takes the story into farcical territory, with Grant in drag trying to sneak aboard an America-bound ship. Sheridan swipes a friend's uniform and uses a horsetail for a wig, a ridiculous gambit that works because it's the culmination of Grant's descent into shame. Of course, sex arrives at the last moment to rescue Captain Rochard's reputation, with the Hawksian idea that even if men must take lots of jabbing, sex makes them into the bosses again. Sure it does.

War Bride has many similarities with Hawks' science fiction film The Thing from Another World, written soon afterwards. Both are about the military, with jokes about the Army's red tape and departmental acronyms. A maze of ice station-like corridors represents Army H.Q.. Embarrassing innuendo about sex is thrown about for the other servicewomen to gawk at. The 'mission' into Germany ends up being about a struggle for dominance between the sexes, instead of between scientists and soldiers.

A really desperate film student might make even more direct parallels between both films - the army is the army, Sheridan represents the contrary scientists, and alien Frenchman Grant is the alien Thing, who must run a military gauntlet before being reduced to an emasculated fool in a wig and skirt / pile of stinking ashes on the floor. But Savant would never try to float such a thesis here.

Interestingly, Hawks and Lederer never suggest that women don't belong in uniform. Sheridan makes a formidable Lieutenant, and although the other servicewomen (including Randy Stuart, later of The Incredible Shrinking Man) are certainly attractive, they're professionals and not bon-bons for the soldiers to play with. Sheridan fits perfectly into the role of a Hawks leading lady, as she's a take-charge dame with experience riding a motorcycle and drinking hard liquor. When she wants to make love, she's more single-minded about it than Grant is. She also manages to be sexy in those ugly calf-length army skirts.

Unlike Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, I Was a Male War Bride has little bearing on the political reality of the post-war occupation of Germany. We won, the Germans are mostly cooperating, and except for some black market activity, that's that. The fact that thousands of European females are coming home to America as the brides of soldiers is barely touched on except to set up Captain Rochard's humiliation. This frivolous commentary on the occupation couldn't be more separate from the decadent, creeping menace of the same year's The Third Man. It's a victor's picture. Germans must have really felt that defeat was final when their former enemy could make comedies about the spoils of war - their women.

I Was a Male War Bride is a lightly amusing comedy that needs all this context to become fully functional ... in other words, it probably has dated more than a lot of other 1950 comedies. Many of its gags aren't that funny in themselves. I've seen people stare at it and declare it a total bust, while others bust out laughing. Watching Cary Grant shuffle about an Army base being denied a place to bunk down is either funny, or it isn't. The English release title, You Can't Sleep Here is less commercial but more descriptive of the movie.

Fox's DVD of I Was a Male War Bride has a hairline scratch here and there but is otherwise a perfect rendition of this television favorite. Fans of the film will be pleased.

There's an interesting extra, about five minutes of unused, unedited newsreel footage. Army brass talk and pose with Grant and Sheridan on a location where the army assembled a pontoon bridge for what must be a cut scene in the film. And the gloomy German premiere is covered with some shots of signage and a dismal crowd entering the theater. It's all interestingly overseen by army personnel. It makes me imagine what it would be like if the war had gone differently, and Americans were 'treated' to comedies about German soldiers making time with our women ... it's hard to figure.

Among the dozens of men in the cast, we see later notable Harry Lauter, Robert Nichols, King Donovan and Edward Platt. A standout is young Kenneth Tobey as a hard-nosed sailor named Red who gives Grant a rough time. Tobey delivers his dialogue with a perfect toughness that must have gotten Hawks' attention. I'm assuming Tobey's brief appearance here won him his starring role in The Thing.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, I Was a Male War Bride rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, raw newsreel footage
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 11, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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