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Mack Sennett's bizarre salute to our boys Over There
It was eighty-five years ago today that the signing of the Armistice brought the Great War to an end. The most brutal conflict in human history up to that time wiped out an entire generation for reasons which, even today, are difficult to explain and impossible to justify. Although that tragedy has since been overshadowed by the Second World War, which was even worse, it's curious that World War I doesn't loom so large in popular culture anymore. Is it too long ago, too remote? Perhaps part of the reason is that we write our popular history with moving images now, and most WWI movies, certainly those made during the war, are museum pieces viewed nowadays primarily by film buffs. Several great silent features, such as King Vidor's The Big Parade, were produced a few years after the war, when filmmaking technique had advanced, yet while the memories were still raw. The talkies brought another spate of worthwhile WWI films, but in later years, especially after the atrocities of WWII made those of the earlier conflict look almost quaint, not so much. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is one of the few latter-day films to bring fresh insight into the madness of war as it unfolded in the European conflict of 1914-1918.
So where does comedy producer Mack Sennett fit into all this? Towards the end of the Great War, he and his band of grotesques crafted a genuinely strange artifact, one that survives as a unique expression of the attitudes of its time. In 1918 Sennett put all his company's top comedians into a feature film entitled Yankee Doodle in Berlin. It was held back for release until early 1919, after the Armistice, perhaps in hopes that once the dust had settled a war-weary public might be willing to laugh at low comedy with a military theme. Charlie Chaplin had daringly released his own Army comedy Shoulder Arms during the war's final weeks, and it was enthusiastically embraced by the public. Sennett's production was modestly successful but not a smash hit, and when we compare the two it's easy to see why. Chaplin's film gives us the day-to-day experiences of a common foot soldier, the Charlie everyone loved, as he dreams his dream of heroism; Sennett's more fragmented effort has no comparable lead player, and focuses largely on the buffoonish behavior of the grossly caricatured German High Command. Chaplin's memorable routines, such as Charlie's masquerade as a tree, are imaginative and exquisitely timed, while Sennett's troupe relies on obvious and sloppily performed crudities: for instance, the Kaiser is shot in the butt by his own troops, his fat wife guzzles beer, an Irish soldier blows his nose in a German flag, etc. Low comedy alternates with blunt appeals to knee-jerk nationalism. Audiences probably roared their approval of these gags when the film was new, but today these appeals to the lowest common denominator feel heavy-handed, coarse, and, considering the human toll involved, more sad than funny.
Objectively speaking Yankee Doodle in Berlin is not a film for the ages, and even silent comedy buffs might be dismayed by its ugly political content, but there is a key plot element so unexpected and downright bizarre it commands attention nonetheless: the hero of the story, American Captain Bob White, is played by a then-famous female impersonator named Bothwell Browne, who spends most of his time on screen in drag. Browne, remembered by theater historians as the only serious rival to Julian Eltinge, had a more lithe figure and a sexier act than his rival, and was in fact best known for a Salome Dance. In this, apparently his only film appearance, Browne appears only briefly in a regular uniform at the beginning. (Ironically he looks quite fey in a mustache, rather like Lucille Ball disguised as a cowboy.) Soon afterward, he volunteers for a dangerous mission which forces him to don ladies' clothing. That, at any rate, is what we're told repeatedly by the title cards.
Our hero Bob is determined to secure war plans from the Kaiser himself (played by Ford Sterling in his usual strenuous fashion), and it seems the only way to accomplish this is for Bob to get behind enemy lines and then pass himself off as an attractive woman of mystery. The title card reads: "Recollections of College Plays," so we're to assume that Bob has had some stage experience playing Mata Hara types. Once he's in Germany, Bob must wrangle himself an invitation to the Palace, do his Salome Dance for the assembled drooling officers, and then grab the plans during an assignation, from the Kaiser's very boudoir if necessary. But just in case we're wondering if our hero is enjoying this a little too much, so to speak, we're reminded that "Bob knew this was the only way to promote the success of his errand." Well hey, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do!
How very odd this is. I've seen some strange movies in my time, but this one is in a special category of its own. Just consider: at the height of the worldwide cataclysm, while Chaplin was making a beloved screen hero out of an ordinary foot-soldier, his former employer Mack Sennett offered audiences a cross-dressing officer who shakes a mean shimmy. Once you've seen it, you may find it difficult to forget the indelible image of Captain Bob White, bereft of his wig but still wearing his evening gown and pearls, heroically pulling the German flag down from the roof of the Palace. If you want class-A cinema go with Chaplin or Vidor or Kubrick, but if you've got a yen for vintage Polymorphic Perversity, it's Sennett and Yankee Doodle in Berlin all the way.
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