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Very entertaining silent film about cute, lively young Ossi, a tomboy
full of a fun-loving spirit, she likes to smoke, drink booze, stick out
her tongue, and play poker with her male chums - but her guardian and
governess want her to behave like a "proper young lady". Wishing she
were "born a boy" she heads to a local men's store and has herself
fitted for an evening suit. Soon she's out on the streets in top hat,
white tie, and tails, her hair groomed like a boy's, she rides the
street car, and goes to a ballroom where she's soon drinking champagne
and smoking cigars, flirting with (and even kissing) her own guardian -
and he think's she's a fellow!
This film is full of charm and loads of fun, in many ways due to the delightful and well done performance given by Ossi Oswalda, a very likable young actress, totally tops in cute and charming! The DVD of this has a nice looking black and white print and includes an extremely appealing, lively piano score by Neil Brand that is the perfect accompaniment to this film.
You wouldn't think there was a war on, with pictures like this being
produced. But in spite of, or perhaps because of the ongoing conflict
in Europe, the mid-to-late teens saw a veritable revolution in screen
comedy. Notably there was Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood, but outside the
states the most important figure was surely director Ernst Lubitsch.
What is astonishing is that due to the war the German film industry was
isolated for foreign imports, and Lubitsch's approach flourished
independently without influence from abroad.
This picture comes from a transitional point in Lubitsch's development, moving from his earliest character-based farces, which were not particularly special, to spectacular comedies where the gags were in the staging and arrangements. Essentially, Lubitsch realised that simple things can appear very funny if they are done simultaneously by lots of people. There are a couple of early examples of this here the mass of serenading suitors, or the gaggle of love-struck tailors. These little moments are comic highpoints, but Lubitsch does not yet appear to have the confidence to spin them into a consistent style. Other than this, we have a series of gags based around Ossi Oswalda's dragged-up escapades. It's interesting to see this frank flirtation with cross-dressing and homosexuality (although not very surprising remember this was the era of Magnus Hirschfield), but as comedy it soon gets a little tedious.
But leaving the comedy aside for the moment, there is evidence here for Lubitsch's emergence as a real craftsman of the cinema. The young director seems to have been really fascinated by the field of depth (an aspect of cinema often forgotten in an age of widescreen), panning shots and rapid editing. Most of the movement in I Don't Want to Be a Man is either towards or away from the camera, rather than across the frame. He often has a corridor leading off somewhere at the back of the shot, giving the space more definition (an honourable mention here goes to set designer Kurt Richter, whose slightly oddball creations were perfect for Lubitsch's world), and there are some very cunning uses of these. One example is when the governess meets the disguised Ossi at the bottom of the staircase. When Ossi exits, the camera pans a little to the right, suddenly framing the governess with the depth of the room behind her and subtly realigning our focus onto her reaction.
There is another factor that makes Lubitsch's German comedies distinctively different, and that is the presence of Ossi Oswalda herself. Although she was dubbed "the German Mary Pickford", Hollywood didn't really have anyone quite like her; a female star who could carry a comedy, and be the originator of the humour rather than just an element within a humorous film. Unfortunately for her, Lubitsch's pictures would get ever more elaborate in style, and would be less and less about the individual performances. If nothing else, I Don't Want to Be a Man shows Oswalda at her best.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"I Don't Want to Be a Man" is a splendid showcase for the acting talents
Ossi Oswalda, the extremely talented (and pretty) soubrette of German
films. She spends a substantial portion of this film dressed as a man,
visiting the dance halls of post-war Berlin ... and the movie resembles a
delightful warm-up for a German version of 'Victor/Victoria' (which was
indirectly adapted from a German source).
Oswalda plays a wilful young woman named Ossi Oswalda (her own name!) who lives with her wealthy uncle and a strict governess. Because the uncle can't control his niece, he engages a man named Kursten to supervise her. Kursten turns out to be a handsome man about thirty years old.
It is repeatedly impressed upon Ossi that her freedom must be restricted because she is female. (Quite believable, this, in 1919 ... when German women didn't have the vote.) Yet, for all her alleged restrictions, Ossi has no difficulty going out by herself to a haberdashery, where she outfits herself in a man's formal evening outfit. There's an amusing scene in which several male shopclerks compete for the pleasure of taking Ossi's measurements.
Back in her room, Ossi struggles with her male costume's stiff celluloid collar as she discovers that perhaps men don't have all the advantages after all. (No, but in 1919 women were still wearing corsets.) With her long hair tucked down the back of her collar, Ossi looks like a teenage boy rather than a man, but she does indeed appear convincingly male ... even though she makes no attempt to suppress her bustline. The most unconvincing part of Ossi's disguise is a ridiculous monocle.
Now this young 'man' goes out for a night on the town, and the 'night' is as fake as Ossi's manhood. (The exterior sequences of Berlin take place in the evening, but were clearly shot day-for-night.) In a dancehall, Ossi sees a young fraulein breaking off with her boyfriend ... none other than Kursten. When Ossi introduces 'himself', Kursten fails to recognise this young 'man' as his own female charge Ossi (I found this quite believable, in view of Oswalda's excellent disguise). One thing leads to another, and soon Ossi is (somewhat unwillingly) experiencing several male rituals such as cigar-smoking, which she thoroughly dislikes. Feeling sick, this young 'man' gets up and rushes for the public lavatory. Guess which one.
SPOILERS COMING. As Kursten becomes increasingly drunk, he starts to look like Rowan Atkinson. Kursten and his 'boy' friend land up in a horse-drawn cab, where they drunkenly start kissing each other! For contrived reasons, each of the two drunkards ends up at the other one's home. The next morning, still in her male disguise, Ossi wakes up in Kursten's bed ... while Kursten wakes up in Ossi's bed, just as the governess arrives to awaken its occupant!
Although Ossi Oswalda's male disguise is highly convincing, most of this movie is rather implausible. Also, the plotline toys with several sexual taboos but doesn't really do anything about them. Several attractive young women flirt with the 'male' Ossi, but this is not developed. When Ossi feels sick in the dance-hall, she runs to the female lavatory ... but stops short outside, as she remembers she's pretending to be male just now. Then she goes to the male lavatory ... but, again, she stops short outside without going in. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid that audiences in 1919 Germany would be offended if this movie's cross-sex theme was more fully developed. There is of course a reassuring ending, with Ossi safely back in skirts and shirtwaists, vowing "I don't want to be a man" and falling in love with Kursten. But why is she attracted to a man who kisses drunken teenage boys? I'll rate this movie 7 points out of 10.
Homoeroticism, transvestitism, gender confusion, dominance and
submission, borderline pedophilia there has never been another, and
certainly will never be another like Ernst Lubitsch. No one who's
familiar with his films could ever be surprised to see the myriad of
taboo subjects covered in "I Don't Want To Be a Man", but even I was
flabbergasted a few times in this one. You won't see many 1910s films
like it. In fact, you won't see many 2010s films like it. And any you
do see will certainly not have Lubitsch's inimitable gift for tackling
such controversial material with such a light, innocuous hand ("the
Lubitsch touch", as they call it).
Lubitsch left Germany and came to Hollywood in 1923, and the American film industry would never be the same. He brought with him his sophistication, his innuendo, and his playful mischievousness. He introduced Hollywood to sex. He pioneered the cinematic musical, making the first ever truly modern musical with "The Love Parade" in '29. His influence on American cinema is as great as anyone's since Griffith.
Most of us know Lubitsch from either his run of musicals "The Love Parade", "Monte Carlo", "The Smiling Lieutenant", and "One Hour With You" or his subsequent non-musicals, "Trouble in Paradise" and "Design for Living". That lattermost film was made in 1933, the last year before the Hays Code was enforced, and therefore, the last year that Lubitsch would ever be able to be the filmmaker he was born to be. Lubitsch's gift was to make comedy out of contentious subject matter, and so for a director who thrived off of suggestion and sexual innuendo, the Hays Code was effectively the end of Lubitsch. Of course, he made some good films after that "To Be or Not To Be" and "Heaven Can Wait" came in the early '40s, and were both quality films but Lubitsch would never again be able to make films that genuinely reflected his true nature as a filmmaker, and his unique sensibilities as an artist.
I think a little bit of censorship, however, was good for Lubitsch. The Hays Code obviously involved far too much of it, but even before '34 when the code really kicked in, there was still censorship. The standards were much looser, but there were standards, nonetheless. And so Lubitsch was forced to express things implicitly that he might otherwise have expressed more explicitly, to much lesser effect. The waggish innuendo that was Lubitsch's bread and butter was necessitated by the presence of censorship. Without some degree of censorship, his films would probably lack some of the qualities he's now famous for.
"I Don't Want To Be a Man" is a good example of this. The restrictions placed on filmmakers in the late 1910s in Germany were clearly even slacker than those in Hollywood's pre-code era, and so many of these early German silents by Lubitsch are more forthright and candid in their treatment of controversial subject matter than his American films were. In a way that makes them all the more riotously entertaining, but it also deprives them of that wink-of-the-eye style of suggestive humor that was Lubitsch's greatest asset as a filmmaker.
There's another reason these early silents by Lubitsch are interesting: They were made prior to the expressionist movement in German cinema. All of the German films I've seen from the '20s can be classified as either part of the German expressionist movement or the New Objectivity movement (an early movement in cinematic social realism). These Lubitsch films, however, from the years before expressionism catapulted German cinema to new levels of popularity, belong to neither movement. So I'm happy to see some German silents that aren't so easily categorized.
Truly, "I Don't Want To Be a Man" transcends classification. Almost never before have I seen such a plethora of taboo subjects in one film. We've seen some of these themes in other Lubitsch films, like the homoeroticism in "Design for Living" (though it was dialed down from Coward's source material), but to see so many of them crammed together into one 45-minute film was quite a ride. However controversial the subjects may have been, though, their treatment was as innocent as can be imagined. Everything in a Lubitsch film is lighthearted by nature.
Saying that a filmmaker was "ahead of his time" is one of the most overused statements in all of film criticism, but here I have no reservations in saying that Lubitsch's films were truly as far ahead of their time, socially, as any films I've ever seen. He was openly and merrily conveying aspects of human socio-sexual tendencies that many individuals are sadly still struggling to come to grips with today, in the year 2015, almost a century later. His films have been accused of being sexist, and watching a movie like "The Smiling Lieutenant", we can see, to a certain extent, why that has been considered. There has certainly been much debate over the nature of Lubitsch's significant role in determining the treatment of female characters in Hollywood cinema. Consequently, some of his films may be more controversial now than they were in their own time. As open-minded and liberal as he was, Lubitsch was never even remotely concerned with being politically correct, and so his body of work remains a fascinating place to study the direction that cinema has taken.
"I Don't Want To Be a Man" is a feverish assault of controversiality and taboo-breaking fun. It's not a great film, but it's a solid film and a joy to watch, and it's unlike anything else from its time (or from any other time, really). I would think that almost anyone would find it worth its 45 minutes, and fans of Lubitsch especially will, I'm sure, be quite satisfied with it.
RATING: 6.00 out of 10 stars
This is a an excellent comedy vehicle for German silent film star Ossi Oswalda. She plays a young tomboy who, unable to leave the house at night in female attire, dresses up as a boy and has a whale of a time at a local dance. She attracts the - unwelcome - attention of a gaggle of females, flirts outrageously with one man, makes fun of others kissing, and ends up spending the evening with another young man. There are some very funny farcical routines - notably one scene where Ossi, apparently drunk, tries her best not to go into the gents restroom, moves towards the ladies, and is shooed away by some irate women. Eventually she and the young man travel home together, and end up in one another's arms kissing. Lubitsch's film offers some of the challenges to gender stereotypes that would be offered a decade and a half later in Hollywood films such as QUEEN Christina (1932). Oswalda makes a convincing man, proving beyond doubt that male courtship rituals are simple, to say the least. The action rattles along at a brisk pace, leading to a predictable conclusion, but ICH MOCHTE KEIN MANN SEIN remains highly watchable.
Four of the earliest romantic comedies from Ernest Lubitsch that are
available, "The Merry Jail" (1917), "The Oyster Princess", "The Doll"
(both 1919) and this film, "I Don't Want to Be a Man", all base much of
their humor around situations of mistaken identity. A character
masquerades as someone else and absurdity and amusement ensue; in this
case, our tomboy protagonist dresses and pretends to be a man for a day
of drinking. Lengthy analysis could and probably has been written about
the homosexual overtones of the scenes of the male lead repeatedly
kissing and touching a woman he believes to be and appears to be a man.
Lubitsch's style was already fairly polished by this time, which is especially evident in the nice 35mm transfers of these films available on home video. The up and down camera movements for seasickness stand out as the most gimmicky technique. What I especially appreciate here, however, is some good comedic visual timing with amusing title cards. For example, in one scene, an intertitle states, "The poor child will be so miserable", which is followed by a shot of the "poor child" dancing zestfully. Overall, even if these early comedies by Lubitsch aren't exceptionally funny and their humor often broad, they're short and well paced; generally, I find them more enjoyable than his ponderous, early dramatic, costume spectacles with Pola Negri.
Frau Ossi ( Frau Ossi Oswalda ) is a good example of how modern were
the Teutonic frauleins at the beginning of the last century; youngsters
ahead of their time who influenced future generations of women to
forget old habits and behaviours. The girlies of today should be being
thankful to those old but modern German frauleins, certainly.
For example, Frau Ossi, a bourgeois fraulein, likes very much to play cards and drink with the servants, not to mention smoking cigarettes. She wants to be on equal terms with her male partners, something her father and governess think is very indecorous behaviour for a serious Teutonic girl. However, Frau Ossi is a very modern and unconventional fraulein who doesn't respect old social Teutonic ways. She doesn't hesitate to break the rules and behave like a man but pretty soon Frau Ossi discovers that it's not easy being a man (especially a genuine German aristocrat) going to balls day after day and trying to look good in a tuxedo.
"Ich Möchte Kein Mann Sein" ( I Don't Want To Be A Man ) (1918) is one of those three reel early Herr Lubitch comedies, deliciously funny and very characteristic of Herr Lubitsch's German first period. Typical of these medium-lengths Herr Lubitsch films is a quick rhythm, hilarious situations, many misunderstandings and of course a crowded bourgeoisie ball. The latter features a most peculiar orchestra led by a frantic conductor. It's the usual war between the sexes and the upending of gender stereotypes, full of "joie de vivre" and performances that suit light comedy.
"Ich Möchte Kein Mann Sein" stars Herr Lubitsch's first muse, Frau Ossi Oswalda, a charming but Germanic actress who collaborated with the Teutonic director in this early German period before the appearance of Frau Pola Negri in his artistic life. His subsequent films were more ironic, sophisticated and sexual but the early presence of such themes can be appreciated in films like "Ich Möchte Kein Mann Sein" with the help of madcap Frau Oswalda. The film seems light, even deliciously superficial but this Herr Graf would say that the simplicity is deceptive and underlying it is an elaborate and difficult cinematic technique of which Herr Lubitsch was a master.
And now, if you'll allow me, I must temporarily take my leave because this German Count must behave not as a man, but as an aristocrat.
A tomboy disguises herself as one of the boys, but finds that life as a
man has its own difficulties.
First of all, was this film made in 1918 or 1920? IMDb says 1918 and the Kino DVD says 1920. I tend to think Kino should be more knowledgeable on this particular title, but I find it hard to doubt IMDb... not that it makes a big difference, but to put it in context of the formative years of cinema, it seems that a more precise date would help.
But anyway, this is quite the ground-breaker, having a woman dress as a man and live as one for a day. Countless films have used this formula since... was this the first? Always an interesting concept, because it seems that most women could not pass as men (or most men as women)... and yet, here, despite a feminine touch there was a generally manly appearance presented.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The reason I mentioned another one of director Ernst Lubitsch's other
films in the summary is because "I Don't Want to be a Man" was packaged
on the same DVD as "Oyster Princess". However, the quality difference
between the two films is huge--and it's pretty clear in both these
films that the famed 'Lubitsch touch' had not yet been acquired by the
director. The subtlety, charm and elegance of his best films (made in
Hollywood during the 1930s) was clearly lacking in both these
movies--though at least "I Don't Want to Be a Man" was at least a good
The film starts with Ossi Oswalda (who also starred in "Oyster Princess") having a wonderful time drinking, smoking and playing cards with the young men. But this NOT acceptable behavior for a lady and she is scolded for this. So, in a move reminiscent of "Victor/Victoria", she gets a suit of men's clothes and poses as a guy--after all, the guys seem to have all the fun. However, through the course of a wild night of carousing, she realizes it's not all it's cracked up to be. Plus, things have gotten complicated, as the man her family wants her to settle down with has fallen in love with her...as a guy!!! This homosexual/bisexual aspect of the film is quite risqué--even by today's standards and seeing them necking is pretty surreal at times! Overall, a clever little film despite it being a bit too short, a bit too simplistic and a bit over-acted in spots. Not a work of genius...but still quite good.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN is less visually extravagant than The Oyster
Princess (the film on which it is paired on Kino's DVD in the US), but
a little more realistic and solid. Ossi Oswalda, the so-called German
Mary Pickford, is a bored and petulant teen; a very strict tutor has
been sent to watch her, she dresses like a man to escape and go on the
town, and winds up spending the evening at a jazz club with her tutor.
SPOILER AHOY: There's a germ of a Victor/Victoria-type comedy here, but it's somewhat flubbed by the fact that it's so hard to read the sexual politics-- Ossi dressed as a man and the tutor wind up cuddling and kissing, yet the movie doesn't seem to be saying that he's homosexual (since they wind up together-- female Ossi and the tutor) at the fade out. So was that normal behavior of two guys hanging out in 1918 Germany? (Try to imagine, say, Mabuse and one of his underlings cuddling.) Did he see her as a person for the first time because he didn't see her as a girl and his pupil? No particular evidence of that dramatic situation on screen.
I Don't Want To Be a Man shows Lubitsch coming closer to the real world, but as would have been the case if Keystone had tried to adapt Edith Wharton, say, he doesn't yet know what to do with it. And, most crucially, he doesn't yet have the actress capable of being more, dramatically and sexually, than a hyperactive tomboy. With his next film, the preposterous and Count Floyd-worthy Eyes of the Mummy ("What do you mean there's no mummy in it?"), he would meet that actress-- Pola Negri.
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