I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)
This gender-bending sex comedy from German director Ernst Lubitsch demonstrates the sophistication and defiance of taboo for which he would become famous, already in place just slightly after the end of the First World War. While it might seem tame to some audiences today, it still has the power to shock or at least surprise, when seen in context of the work Hollywood was producing at the time.
Ossi Oswalda stars as “Ossi,” a spoiled rich tomboy who likes to play cards, smoke, and drink liquor, but is told these are not “ladylike” by her uncle (Victor Janson) and governess (Margarete Kupfer). The uncle receives orders to travel abroad for his job, which each believes will liberate them from the constant clashes. The uncle discovers that he hasn’t the stomach for sea travel, while Ossi learns the he and the governess have hired Dr, Kersten (Curt Götz) as a new tutor for her, to instruct her in discipline and proper etiquette. He is very strict, but Ossi is very responsive to him – instead of rebelling, she obeys his commands, possibly because she is attracted to him.
Whatever her feelings for the tutor, Ossi decides that she isn’t interested in living the way he dictates, so she goes to a tailor’s and orders a man’s suit, fitted to her. All of the (male) clerks compete to see which parts of her anatomy they will get to measure. The next morning, Ossi gets ready to go out in her new suit, learning the hard way how difficult it is to properly put on a stiff high collar and bow tie. This is briefly intercut with the tutor preparing to go out for the day with the assistance of his valet. He looks smug and self-satisfied, while she looks frustrated and near desperate. Finally (and with the help of a clip-on), Ossi is also prepared to go out into the world that is usually denied to her. When her governess sees her, she remarks, “What a charming young man!” (Seemingly not scandalized that this “young man” has just emerged from Ossi’s bedroom!).
She quickly discovers the difference in how she is treated when she rides the U-Bahn and is made to give up her seat so that a lady may sit. One of the men steps on her foot and when she howls in pain she is told to “be a man.” She decides to go to a ball, and has to compete with a crowd of men to check her hat and cloak at the cloakroom. Girls flirt with her and she does not know how to respond. One of them catches her applying makeup and shames “him” in front of her friends. Eventually, she is chased down by a gaggle of young women who see “him” as eligible. Soon after, her tutor arrives is starts putting moves on one of the girls that was after her. Ossi decides to have a bit of fun by stealing the girl away from him, but is too clumsy to make an impression. When Dr. Kersten comes over to chastise “him,” another man swoops in and gets the girl.
Now Ossi and Dr. Kersten enjoy some rather intimate “male bonding” over drinks. He shows her how to smoke a cigar, which of course only makes her nauseous. She has to be shown which lavatory to use, but when she gets to the door, she realizes there will be men in there, and opts out. Ossi is soon much too drunk to be responsible for her actions, and the doctor is decidedly unsteady as well. They begin to exchange kisses of “friendship” over champagne. After a certain amount of almost-Chaplinesque drunken shenanigans, they manage to find a cab home, but pass out after giving the addresses and each winds up in the other’s bedroom. The doctor is confused as to how he wound up in a lady’s bedroom, but Ossi is horrified and runs home as fast as she can. The doctor, who was hoping to sneak out undetected (especially once he recognized the house as belonging to his pupil), encounters her and begs her not to reveal to her “cousin” the indiscretions of the night before. Ossi agrees and goes upstairs to change, but the doctor sees her and realizes the swindle. They shame one another, but soon they kiss, giving in to their true mutual attraction.
As with pretty much all sex comedies before and since, this movie titillates its audience by pushing past acceptable boundaries, but “squares up” with its audience at the end by reasserting traditional values. In fact, the very premise of the “Prince and the Pauper” setup here is that life is not actually freer or better for men than women, just different, and in some ways more demanding when you’re not used to it. Lubitsch implicitly rejects any notions of patriarchy or privilege and tells his audience that people are happiest when they accept their lot in life. Still, there’s a certain amount going on here that goes beyond what would be acceptable in other contexts. Berlin in the coming years would become known as a hotspot for gay culture, and already the old values of the Kaiserreich were under attack from various sides. In a time when men’s clothing was as clearly bounded as women’s dresses are today, it was not uncommon for lesbians to cross-dress, and at first Ossi seems to get a thrill from flirting with young women on the street and at the ball. The later portion of the movie, in which she and the tutor are shyly kissing and cuddling together, raises questions about his sexuality and possible interest in boys. For audiences in 1918, this is fairly racy material. For audiences “in the know,” this may have seemed like a rare instance of mass media portraying sexual difference.
From our point of view today, this may be the most effective and genuinely funny example of “situational” comedy (as opposed to physical comedy like slapstick) that I’ve reviewed on this blog. Lubitsch, whatever his sexual politics, comes across like a breath of fresh air after some of the attempts at comedy we’ve endured. He uses all of the cinematic advances of the previous decade – close-ups, rapid editing, camera angles, camera movement, etc – to present a movie that takes itself seriously enough as art to stand up against the work of DeMille, Griffith, or Tourneur without any embarrassment. As a director of actors, he understands that “less is more,” and uses subtleties to show humorous situations instead of having all of the actors play as broadly as possible. He uses real locations and lots of extras to give his city verisimilitude, instead of confining himself to a few obvious studio sets or asking the audience to imagine lot of people in the background we never see. This is the sort of movie that got Germany its reputation as a center of cinematic excellence, even if it isn’t as well-remembered now as the Expressionism of the 1920s.
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Camera: Theodore Sparkuhl
Starring: Ossi Oswalda, Curt Götz, Victor Janson, Margarete Kupfer
Run Time: 45 Min
You can watch it for free: here.