I Was a Male War Bride, 1949, 20th Century Fox. Starring Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 105 minutes.
In post-WWII Germany, French Army Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) is given a travel assignment—and a travel partner, American Army Lieutenant Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan). The two have encountered each other before in a less-than-desirable non-disclosed situation, and the animosity creates a growing tension. This lack of cooperation creates one obstacle after another, until, to their surprise, a bond develops. A serious bond.
They arrive back from their journey engaged to be married, but new complications arise. Catherine is now assigned stateside, and for Henri to follow her back, he must qualify as a war bride—or rather, the “Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel En Route to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress.”
This is a slower-paced comedy than many of director Howard Hawks’ earlier works, such as His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, but it works. Hawks said in later interviews he wasn’t interested in “female impersonation” as a comedy tool, but he found Grant’s portrayal of a war bride acceptable because “he was so masculine.” Indeed, the most comic element of Henri dressed as a woman is the ludicrous nature of trying to turn Cary Grant into someone ladylike.
While he may not have looked to female impersonation for comedy, role reversal was a common element in many of Hawks’ films. In His Girl Friday, he changed the entire tone of the film by making the lead character a woman, instead of a man as originally written, and introducing romance to the plot. In To Have and Have Not, he presented Lauren Bacall as the more powerful of the two lead characters, although arguably it is difficult to see Humphrey Bogart as weak in any way.
Hawks also spoke to the challenge of bringing out the humor in some of the scenes. “We had a scene where Cary had to answer all kinds of ridiculous questions, such as ‘you ever had female trouble?’ We looked forward to making that scene, but when we did, it wasn’t funny at all. We got the idea that maybe a man like that would be amused at the sergeant having to ask him these silly questions. ‘Female trouble? Nothing but.'” With that switch in attitude, the scene worked.
Ann Sheridan, an often underrated actress, is thoroughly delightful as the “military personnel” who, in addition to the difficulty of getting her new husband home, is frustrated by the challenge of spending so much as a single night alone with him. The sexual tension in this film is played for all it’s worth right from the beginning, despite the Production Code restrictions in place. It is indicative of the loosening of Code standards, which were starting to unravel at this time.
Like Cary Grant, this film is charming and disarming, and the humor holds up today. It is based on one man’s true life story of being a “male war bride,” and for the most part, the situations don’t bend the limits of reality too far beyond belief. Grant as a woman may be the notable exception, but that’s also one of the funniest parts of the movie, so it’s easy to overlook.