Girls Will Be Boys

Presented at SFSFF 2016
Live Musical Accompaniment by Maud Nelissen and Frank Bockius

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918
Ossi Oswalda, Kurt Götz, Ferry Sikla, Margarete Kupfer, and Victor Janson
Production Produktions-AG Union Print Source George Eastman Museum

Directed by Richard Wallace, USA, 1926
Clyde Cook, Katherine Grant, James Finlayson, Laura De Cardi, and Martha Sleeper
Production Hal Roach Studios Print Source SFSFF Collection

Essay by Aimee Pavy

In 1918, things are beginning to change for women and their place in society, but not fast enough for Ossi Oswalda in Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man (Ich möchte kein Mann sein). The high-spirited teenaged niece of a stuffy bureaucrat longs for the freedom to be herself outside the social proscriptions for her gender. Her governess asks “And you want to be a proper young lady?” To which she responds “I don’t want that at all.” Can she enjoy the privileges afforded to men simply by wearing a suit? Ossi has just enough naiveté and gumption to find out.

In the silent era, female characters in trousers and waistcoats were acceptable and even expected, just as men in drag were a source of comedy. In her book Girls Will Be Boys film scholar Laura Horak writes that females playing male roles have a long history in the theater, Shakespeare is filled with examples of gender-reversal (Portia suits up to argue in court and Viola is, for most of Twelfth Night, Cesario). Horak cites seventeen films released in the U.S. that feature female-to-male cross-dressing in 1918 alone; feature films showcasing transplants from the stage like Danger, Go Slow with former Ziegfeld Girl Mae Murray and Revelation with Alla Nazimova, whom Metro Pictures billed as “The Great Nazimova.” “By importing a centuries-old performance tradition from theater,” Horak writes, “they connected moving pictures with the more legitimate art form.”

As women joined the workforce and volunteered for non-combat roles during wartime, it was acceptable that they adopt certain items from men’s wardrobes. The clothing was not just less cumbersome and restrictive but resembled male business-like attire—clothes that commanded respect. “During the First World War,” Diana Crane writes in her book Fashion and Its Social Agendas, “Englishwomen served in the armed forces, wearing men’s uniforms, including jackets, ties, and caps, with long skirts. In civilian life, they took over a variety of men’s jobs, often with the uniforms that went with the jobs.” Not everyone enjoyed the new freedoms, social or sartorial. Laura Doan, in her book Fashioning Sapphism, quotes a sergeant in the Royal Flying Corps: “The days are so strange now when women are doing their best to become like men in dress, smoking and drinking, that one wonders where it will ever stop.”

I Don’t Want to Be a Man was produced in Germany during the last months of World War I. Berlin was already known for its nightlife and a liberal climate that allowed arguments for individual freedoms and gay rights. Reviewing Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity in the New Yorker magazine, Alex Ross writes: “In the eighteen-eighties, a Berlin police commissioner gave up prosecuting gay bars and instead instituted a policy of bemused tolerance, going so far as to lead tours of a growing demimonde.”

Berlin’s cultural spirit could only be dampened by the announcement that Germany had lost the war, a surprise to many at home. According to Scott Eyman’s Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, “The night and for the next several nights, all movie, cabaret, and burlesque performances were canceled.” I Don’t Want to Be a Man was a light-hearted, romantic precursor to the wild intensity that escalated during the Weimar Republic, the liberal government established one month after its release. Tasting the city’s temptations in the early 1920s, screenwriter Anita Loos wrote: “… the night life was pretty decadent. Any Berlin lady of the evening might turn out to be a man; the prettiest girl on the street was Konrad Veidt.”

Lubitsch uses cross-dressing as a vehicle for a sweet fish-out-of-water story in I Don’t Want to Be a Man. The film playfully thrusts the tomboyish Ossi into a man’s world. But being a man isn’t as liberating as she thought: there are tricky shirt buttons, misunderstandings on public transportation, confusion over the powder room. These are only minor tests in the whole challenge of “passing”—successfully convincing others that you’ve the right to go out unescorted, flirt brazenly, smoke a cigar, and get sloppy drunk in public.

Dapper Ossis existed off the screen as well. A police report from August 1897 gives a brief sketch of Babe Bean, also called Jack, a woman living in Stockton, California, who had to explain her choice of a blue suit, white silk shirt, and hat pulled down over her eyes: “I have been wearing men’s clothing off and on for five years, for as a man, I can travel freely, feel protected and find work ... How I yearned for that freedom I dreamed of and how often I wished I could enjoy the liberty that the world sees fit to allow a boy.”

Donning a tux paves the way for Ossi’s long-imagined emancipation but when she discovers romance, it makes her think twice about leading life as a man. In what has become society’s code for “growing up” she gives it up for a chance at love. In Tomboys, Michelle Ann Abate sums up the sudden restrictions, “Young girls were now expected to slough off tomboyish traits when they reached a specific age or stage of life: usually, the beginning of adolescence or the onset of puberty.” Now that she wants to kiss a boy, Ossi is happy to conform.

What’s the World Coming To? (1926) takes on cross-dressing by both sexes, also in an upper-class world. Written in part by comedy’s up-and-coming genius Stan Laurel, the script is set a hundred years in the future when women and men have switched roles. Women are the dominant sex, sporting waistcoats and close-cropped hair, and the men have become not so much feminine as ruffle-draped buffoons. In this imagining of 2026, it’s a zero-sum game, in which any power gained by women is a loss for men.

The Hal Roach-produced no-holds-barred comedy hinges almost entirely on a mash-up of masculine and feminine fashion (and stereotypical mannerisms) with a focus on the fussier elements of women’s outfits worn by the men—bushy mustaches paired with giant hats trimmed with marabou and the like. Laughs also rely on the idea that while everyone looks good in a well-tailored suit, flouncy shirts emasculate. Anticipating the famous Marilyn Monroe scene from Seven Year Itch, Clyde Cook finds himself trying to have a serious conversation while standing over a sidewalk grate in the largest of shirts. As Horak says, “While men’s clothing could make women more attractive to both men and women on-screen, women’s clothing most often made men undesirable to everyone.”

The comedy in both films comes from the unexpected and both play with twists on societal norms. Society’s rules and fashions for women shifted dramatically in the first two decades of the twentieth century, from the Victorian age of hobble skirts and corsets to clingy, revealing garb of the flapper, giving women a new freedom of movement, in a literal sense, but also some freedom to experiment with new outward identities. Changes continue today, with public battles over gender identity and which bathroom to use. As notions of gender burst out from the binary of male and female, society continues to both relent and restrict. If only everyone would play along like in a Lubitsch comedy.