By Todd Hill
For America, World War II ended late in the summer of 1945, but the conflict’s influence on our culture and society lingered for several years afterward.
That era’s omnipresent sight of men and women in uniform and its easy familiarity with military manners and methods may be difficult to appreciate today, but a viewing of the 1949 Howard Hawks film “I Was a Male War Bride” is a delightful way to fill in the gaps.
Hawks was known for his screwball comedies, and this was his third with Cary Grant. As the movie winds up to its final, over-the-top sequence, Grant, as “an alien spouse of female military personnel en route to the United States under Public Law 271 of the Congress,” i.e., a war bride, is forced to dress as a woman so he can board a U.S. Naval vessel with his new wife (Ann Sheridan). There’s no more classic a screwball chestnut than cross-dressing, which manages to be mildly amusing here only because Grant plays it straight.
The film’s cliched ending can be forgiven, however, thanks to all the good will Hawks, Grant and Sheridan have cultivated with the audience up to that point. “I Was A Male War Bride” works wonderfully because — until it sets sail, anyway — it doesn’t try too hard.
This is a military picture through and through, even though it takes place in peacetime. And while it’s set in Germany, where much of it was also shot, it takes no special interest in the city’s bombed out buildings or struggling populace. The focus of the movie’s plot — and the source of much of its comedy — is instead on the endearing puzzlement of military red tape.
Grant portrays Capt. Henri Rochard, a French officer — which we are able to gather only because of his uniform — who is set to embark on a mission with WAC Lt. Catherine Grant to track down a black marketer in the German countryside. An early scene features Grant in a hallway lined with tongue-twisting military acronyms looking at a door marked “LADIES” and trying to decipher what it might stand for.
I’ve seen “I’m A Male War Bride” a number of times, and each time am struck by how much it feels like two distinct movies. Early on the audience learns that Capt. Rochard and Lt. Gates have worked together before, and their spiky chemistry is nicely maintained as the two wander through some great rural visuals on a motorcycle with sidecar.
The movie probably peaks when the two spend a rainy night in a village inn, and Henri finds himself accidentally locked in Catherine’s room. Hawks takes his time with this extended, mostly wordless sequence, allowing the viewer to settle in with the picture with a comforting sense of being in good hands.
The Frenchman and the American finally declare their love for each other a couple days later in a haystack, at which point “I Was A Male War Bride” becomes another movie. Gone is the vinegary banter, as the new lovers direct their frustrations to fighting military bureaucracy.
To be legal, the captain and lieutenant must be married three times — in American, French and German ceremonies. They have multiple forms to fill out. And getting back to the States proves to be the stiffest challenge of all. Hawks and his writers have some fun with putting Grant’s character in multiple situations where he can’t get a good night’s sleep (no arrangements have been conceived for male war brides, who aren’t allowed to share quarters with women). It’s amusing stuff, but not enough to sustain the movie’s earlier momentum; the picture can’t help but coast to its big cross-dressing bit aboard ship.
Fortunately, we have Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan to get us there. The latter, who became a star with 1938’s gangster flick “Angels With Dirty Faces,” was a pinup personality during World War II and termed the “Oomph Girl.” That aura was dialed down for “I Was A Male War Bride,” likely in part because WAC uniforms weren’t terribly flattering. Instead, Sheridan makes an ample foil for Grant. (The actress was only 51 when she died of cancer in 1967.)
Sheridan’s co-star, like other actors such as James Stewart and Tom Hanks, has long been criticized for routinely playing some version of himself, or at least the same character, and perhaps he did that. What of it? Clearly, it worked. Grant often remarked that “I Was A Male War Bride” was among his favorites of all the movies he worked on, which is the sort of thing actors say whenever they’re asked about any picture they’ve done. But if Grant was speaking the truth, considering his filmography, then that’s truly saying something.
Cast and crew had some challenges making this movie. Grant came down with hepatitis and lost 30 pounds, causing a long production delay. Sheridan contracted pneumonia, and when she was still healthy ran over a goose with the aforementioned motorcycle and killed it. Still, “I Was A Male War Bride” was a big hit in 1949 and, like the best screwball comedies, continues to hold up today. Funny has no expiration date.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat. Still, he enjoys writing about film, particularly the classics.