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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.
A funny and stylistically interesting feature from the Sennett studio
directed by wunderkind Richard Jones. Although his comedies generally
featured human-looking comics for Sennett and Roach, as opposed to the
grotesques made popular at Keystone, in this one he combines the two
styles: the Allies look and act like normal people, but the Germans are
in the full grotesque makeup of the earlier films, acting with the
exaggerated mannerisms one expects from the Sennett studio. The entire
Sennett company is on view here and the jokes are crude, take advantage
of the propaganda of the era -- there is a joke about German soldiers
capturing a Belgian convent -- and funny.
If you don't know this style of comedy, you may be taken aback by it. If, however, you like this sort of thing -- and I do -- you will have a lot of fun.
As World War I drew down and the world struggled with the devastating
effects of the flu epidemic, Mack Sennett was writing this comedy about
the conflict in Europe.
This silent comedy had a target--the Kaiser. An American is sent behind the lines to infiltrate the German Headquarters, which he does in drag. The Kaiser and his entourage are depicted as bumbling fools, beaters of women and cheaters at croquet. They are certainly no match for our "hero", Bob White the dress-wearing representation of American patriotism.
No doubt audiences jeered and hissed when the Kaiser and his immoral scum cronies were on screen and cheered whenever they got their comeuppance. The film even contains some editorial comments written on the footage to cue the audience's animosity.
Portraying the Kaiser as a half-witted monkey makes the Allied enemy seem less that formidable, but the audience must have its laughs. The result is a dated, one-trick film that is interesting as an artifact of the immediate post-war era.
BOSWELL BROWNE was a famous female impersonator of the WWI era
appearing in vaudeville acts with his Salome routine and other comic
acts as a female impersonator. Mack Sennett uses him here as the
American soldier who uses his wiles on the Kaiser (FORD STERLING) and
his son (BEN TURPIN) so that he can perform a Mata Hari kind of spying
on the German army.
It's a strange comedy (to put it mildly) and if all the laughs weren't so dependent on outrageous slapstick buffoonery from the entire cast, it may have worked. Film quality is sometimes very poor due to age but for the most part it's given a halfway decent print on TCM that is at least watchable.
All of it is very obvious lowbrow humor making fun of the inept German army and it's only worth a look as a curiosity piece. Not at all in the same category as Chaplin's SHOULDER ARMS or his WWII comedy THE GREAT DICTATOR, it's merely fluff of a crude kind capitalizing on sophomoric humor.
Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)
** (out of 4)
Producer and writer Mack Sennett said in an interview that this film was the final word on WW1. This movie was released just four months after the war had ended and there's no question that it was meant to be a middle finger to Germans. In the film Othwell Browne plays an American soldier who dresses in drag to make idiots out of three German's including The Kaiser (Ford Sterling). YANKEE DOODLE IN BERLIN isn't the greatest comedy ever made and I didn't really care for too much of it but at the same time it remains a rather interesting curio simply because of how mean-spirited it is. It should go without saying but the German folks are made to look like complete animals here and you can't help but think that back in the day people were laughing their heads off at the material and I'm sure cheering whenever one of the German characters were either knocked out or just beaten. There are countless scenes where the brave American soldier is standing up for his country in his nice uniform but when we see the German guys they're all walking like idiots, wearing bad mustaches or simply acting like they belong in a pre-school class. I'm sure many eyes from today would look at this and find it rather distasteful, which it pretty much is, but at the same time it's important to remember that this was released after the war and I'm sure many people had a good time laughing at the enemy. Today, the film doesn't contain nearly enough laughs to make it work but at the same time the first half is interesting enough to keep it moving. I thought there were some funny moments early on as one soldier pretends to be a German just so he can make fun of those around him. Another funny sequence as a German officer having a large man beat the tar out of a smaller German guy after he insults the "woman." This is a pretty funny scene just due to how violent it was and this is true even though we can see the obvious fake human taking the beating. I thought Browne was pretty good when in drag and Sterling is obviously having fun in his role. Malcolm St. Clair, Ben Turpin, James Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy also appear.
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