I've never understood the appeal of the male impersonator: the actress who pretends to be a boy or a man. The only context in which this makes sense to me is the British panto, in which the 'principal boy' is played by an actress whose male costume of tight-fitting breeches actually emphasises (rather than conceals) her very female attributes. I also understand that certain 'trouser roles' in classical opera are easier for the female voice to perform than the male. But, as for the actresses who make a speciality of genuinely trying to pass as male ... what's the point?
Yet for some reason, from the late Victorian era up until the 1930s, male impersonators were hugely popular in Britain. Ronnie Barker's cheeky anthology 'Sauce' reprints a piece of Victorian doggerel about two brothers who did an act in the variety halls: realising that sister acts were more popular than brother acts, they billed themselves as women but appeared onstage in masculine dress ... and became far more successful as 'male impersonators' than they would have been as male performers.
One of the most popular and successful male impersonators was Vesta Tilley (1864-1952). She had a repertoire of male characters, most notably Burlington Bertie (a homeless man who sleeps in the Burlington Arcade but boasts about his social contacts). Dressed as a sailor, she performed 'Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Sailor'. As a roguish womaniser, she sang 'I'm Following in Father's Footsteps, I'm Following Me Dear Old Dad'. Her sentimental ballad was 'Sweetheart May'. As Tilley sang all of her songs in the contralto-soprano range, one wonders why she bothered with the male disguises.
'After the Ball' (named for another of her song hits) is ostensibly Tilley's life story, filmed on a painfully low budget. All the usual showbiz clichés are here. The most interesting scenes are Tilley's interactions with various British and American theatrical figures. In New York City, she works for impresarios Tony Pastor and Oscar Hammerstein: the latter is not the lyricist, but his namesake grandfather. Sadly, this film doesn't even make a token attempt to depict these men accurately. Pastor was massively fat, and Hammerstein (the original) had an elaborate beard: you'd never know it from the actors on offer here.
I was intrigued to see George M Cohan's name in the cast list of this movie. Apparently, Tilley actually performed in a stage comedy with Cohan at least once. Here, Cohan is played brashly by obscure actor Mark Baker. It's disappointing that Cohan (or, rather, Baker as Cohan) never once cuts loose with some 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' song-and-dancing here. More regrettable is the fact that Baker hasn't got even a fraction of the dynamic presence of Cohan himself, nor of James Cagney nor Joel Grey: two performers who have played Cohan far more memorably than Baker does here.
The romantic male lead is essayed by Laurence Harvey, as the titled Englishman who becomes Vesta's match. Whenever you see the words 'romantic lead' and 'Laurence Harvey' in the same sentence, you know something's wrong. Harvey is so cold and unemotional here, he seems to be practising for his role as the brainwashed zombie in 'The Manchurian Candidate'.
In the central role as Vesta Tilley, Pat Kirkwood is attractive and personable but utterly fails to convince me that she was one of the leading stage performers of the early twentieth century. Kirkwood's forays into male garb are embarrassing; she seems to be eager to convince us that she really *isn't* a man. More intriguing, in her brief appearance, is child actress Margaret Sawyer playing Tilley as a child. I have a deep passion for the history of the British entertainment industry during precisely the time period depicted in this movie, yet 'After the Ball' largely fails to capture the spark and excitement of that era. The very poor art direction doesn't help. I'll generously rate this movie 6 out of 10.
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