I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Seeing the names of Howard Hawks and Cary Grant together, I expected a lot from I Was a Male War Bride. Watching it, however, I felt slightly disappointed, as I soon realised this isn’t the masterpiece I’d expected – and nowhere near the sublime screwball comedy of their other collaborations like His Girl Friday

iwasamalewarbride21Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it, and wouldn’t quite agree with the critics who claim that it is “horrendously unfunny” – James Harvey’s verdict in the massive book I’m currently reading, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood.  I think that’s slightly harsh. There are some amusing moments, and the basic story is intriguing – but, to me, the main problem is that the dialogue just isn’t as fast and as sparkling as a screwball comedy needs it to be. Quite a bit of slapstick comedy is thrown in to make amends, and is often funny – but razor-sharp exchanges of wit between  Grant and Ann Sheridan could have been even funnier.

The film is loosely based on a memoir by the real Henri Rochard, the name of Grant’s character in the movie – a Belgian who married an American servicewoman and found it extremely difficult to negotiate all the red tape involved in moving to the US as a “male war bride”. (According to an interesting web page I found, the name Henri Rochard was  a pseudonym for Belgian underground fighter turned professor of oceanography Roger Charlier, who married US army nurse Kate, and was still active in his academic field in 2006.)

Although Rochard/Charlier was really a Belgian, in the film the character is French. However, Grant seems just as obviously English as usual, with no attempt to change his instantly recognisable mid-Atlantic accent.  (I think he does say one line in French early on, but I couldn’t swear to it.) To be honest, that’s fine by me – I sometimes wish that actors with wonderful voices wouldn’t struggle so hard to do accents if it doesn’t come naturally. We all know what they really sound like anyway!  Having said that, there are some distinctly odd scenes in this film where American soldiers struggle to speak French to Grant and he stares at them in bemusement, answering in perfect English.

iwasamalewarbrideposterThe story is set in Germany immediately after the war, where French officer Rochard (Grant) constantly finds himself working with American Gates. They love to hate one another and are constantly sniping and finding fault – but, when the two of them are sent off to find a high-level German scientist, their enmity abruptly turns to love. Of course, hate at first sight, love at second sight is a comedy staple, but the problem here is that Henri really does seem to dislike Catherine, and their bickering is more sour than I expected in a romantic comedy. Also, the change from hate to love seems very abrupt – the couple kiss a few times (with one of Hawks’ frequently repeated lines of dialogue thrown in, about kissing being better when both people help) and that’s it. In the next scene they are engaged!  

iwasamalewarbride31

Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan

 From this point on, the film changes tack – and, instead of arguing with each other, Henri and Catherine start to argue with a succession of bureaucrats, both military and civil, who want to put obstacles in their way.  After they get married, the movie starts to have a strong element of farce, as it is impossible for them ever to spend the night together and consummate their marriage – because, every time they are in a room together, a military commander issues an order or they have to move on, or they discover that the hotel or hostel won’t take couples.

The couple decide that Henri should travel back to the US with Catherine under the war brides legislation, as her spouse, since this will allow him to live and work in the country. However, they soon discover that all the legislation and arrangements are based on the assumption that the foreign “spouse” is a woman. Henri has terrible  problems in being allowed on to the buses for the brides, and can’t find anywhere to sleep. (In the UK the film was originally released under the title You Can’t Sleep Here  – a mystifying decision since the original title must be one of the most striking things about the movie.) Although his problems are exacerbated by being a man, I do think the film shows how the mass of “brides” were treated, being interrogated about their personal lives (“Have you ever had any female troubles?”) and herded around – there are scenes of women with young children waiting around endlessly.  

Cary Grant in drag

Cary Grant in drag - sort of

The comic climax comes when Henri can’t find a way of getting on to the boat, and in the end has to disguise himself as a very unlikely woman, Florence. This is by far the funniest part of the film, showing the way forward to Some Like It Hot – Cary Grant is just as gloriously unconvincing as a woman as Jack Lemmon is. I’ve read an account of the filming somewhere (I forget where) and Hawks said that, to start with, Grant was quite keen on putting on some female mannerisms etc, and he told him not to do any of that – just to play Florence as a man wearing a dress. That’s just what he does, with great comic results. Much of the film might be a  bit below par for a team like Hawks and Grant, but the last scenes make up for a lot.

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11 thoughts on “I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

  1. Dear Judy,

    Do you know that Cary Grant was gay? Surely the story that he desired to act female mannerism is related to this; also Hawks’s refusal. The dislike this film evokes is more than anti-emasculation and identification with him by men who resent he should lose his powers to a woman; it comes from the implied (coded) transvestism going on.

    I don’t remember if I told you I did see the film were a actor imitated Grant: Clive Owens in a caper film, _Duplicity_. He is in competition with a “strong” woman too, Julia Roberts, though her strength is in keeping the right silence and outwitting people, not “talking tough.” She acts tough. The film opens with her going to bed with him, waking first, frisking him and getting the hell out of there.

    I didn’t like _Duplicity_ because the values and norms were cruel, competitive. Not a kind moment in sight except if you think sensuality is. I suppose it was a tongue-in-check exposure of raw capitalism, but really it was too glamorous for that. And no morality anywhere.

    But Owens was dressed up to be a gentlemanly wit like Grant — very unusual with tie and suit. And Roberts took the Russell role much changed by decades.

    Ellen

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    • Dear Ellen, it’s strange, but it really hadn’t struck me about the comic cross-dressing being controversial – probably because I’ve seen similar storylines in later films, such as ‘Some Like It Hot’ and ‘Tootsie’. I am now wondering if this was one of the first films to have such a storyline – I gather there was some kind of battle with the censors and that changes possibly had to be made to the script, though what these were I don’t know. I really need to get hold of a copy of the Howard Hawks biography which I’ve been meaning to buy for a while and find out more about the history of this and his other films. I did know about Grant being gay or bisexual, but I don’t know a huge amount about his life and career – I have skim-read a biography of him but it was a dreadful book so I gave up reading it properly after a while and hope to get hold of a better one, ideally one which concentrates on his movies! I’ve gathered he was a more versatile actor than I’d realised, and wasn’t just in comedies. I haven’t seen ‘Duplicity’, but, having read your description, I won’t be in any rush.:)

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    • I’m so glad I found your site, Judy. Been reading for a while, but this is my first comment. Like you, I am a fan of old movie classics.

      The first time I saw “I was a Male War Bride” I, too, was a bit disappointed. But it improves with age, though it is not as great as other Hawks movies. Sheridan was an under-rated actress. She is always a joy to watch.

      Regarding the sexual orientation of Cary Grant: In a taped interview, Howard Hawks was asked if Grant was gay, and he said absolutely not. This is on an interview included with the DVD of Hawks’s “Rio Bravo.” Hawks went on to say that the issue had been around for a while, but that Grant was straight hetero. He had directed Grant more than once and knew the man well.

      Betsey Drake was also asked the same question (this appears on a DVD included with “Bringing Up Baby”) and she gave the same answer Hawks had given, though her answer was decidedly more crude. If Grant was gay, then maybe Jimmy Stewart and Hank Fonda were also gay, b/c they shared a house for a while. It was a house next to Greta Garbo, BTW. But, stories that have circulated for years aren’t going away any time soon, even though they have no basis in reality.

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  2. Judy,
    I agree that this is not top-notch Howard Hawks. Hawks film always dealt with the battle of the sexes but this is certainly one of his lessor efforts. It is entertaining, thanks to Grant and Sheridan but the script, as you alude to, could have been inproved. As ususal, enjoyed your review.

    Ellen – I agree with you on “Duplicity.” There really was not a likable character in the film. They lacked charm (though Clive Owens gave it a shot)and if you are going to be a crook in what is essentially a light caper type movie you need to be charming. I was expecting more from, Tony Gilroy, the writer/director of “Michael Clayton.”

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    • Thank you for the encouragement, as ever, John. I definitely agree it is one of his lesser efforts, but I don’t think it’s a complete disaster. I’d really like to see all the Hawks movies I can, as well as all the Cagney ones, and all the Bette Davis… the lists of must-sees keep getting ever longer.

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  3. Judy, I finally got around to reading your post on “War Bride,” and I must say that I agree completely with your assessment of the movie. I saw it a few years back and with Grant and Hawks reunited, my expectations were high. But while a good enough movie, it’s not a great one. It just doesn’t have the sparkle or inspiration of “Bringing Up Baby” or “His Girl Friday” (but then few movies do). Grant and Hawks later did “Monkey Business” in the more frantic style of those earlier films, but that seemed forced to me. Maybe the day of the frenetic screwball approach had simply passed. I know that post-WW II movie comedy just isn’t the same for me as earlier comedy.

    Having said that, the surprise for me in “War Bride” was Ann Sheridan. I’d never paid much attention to her, but after seeing this movie I noticed how good she was in comic roles in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “George Washington Slept Here.” She was lovely and projected a good balance of femininity and strength.

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    • Thank you, R.D. – I think my problem with it was really that my expectations were too high. I don’t think I said enough in my review about Ann Sheridan, but I do like her – I’ve been impressed by her in some of the older movies I’ve seen her in, such as ‘City For Conquest’, where she stars with Cagney, and ‘San Quentin’, where she is improbably cast as Bogart’s protective older sister, even though he was older than her and looked it – but she’s still good despite the mis-casting. I haven’t seen her in many comedies, but will have to look out for more.

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    • Oh yes, you’re right, and I saw that not so long ago, so should have remembered! She also has a comic part in ‘Torrid Zone’ with Cagney and Pat O’Brien, and I think she is good in that too, though I don’t remember it very well…

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  4. Thank you to Cagney Fan for the encouraging comments on my blog. As I’ve said, I don’t know a great deal about Cary Grant’s life and sexuality, although I would like to know more and hope to read a full biography of him soon. I agree that Sheridan is a good and underrated actress.

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