HE/SHE GOES TO WAR: TWO SILENT WWI MOVIES CLASSICS AT THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU MUSEUM

Last Friday evening I had the privilege to introduce a silent film double-feature in the auditorium of the Wolfsonian-FIU museum, with Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919) and She Goes to War (1929). Although both films were set during the First World War, the films treated that subject matter in very different ways. Yankee Doodle in Berlin was released just one year after hostilities ceased, and its comedic tone provided war-weary audiences with a catharsis and release from the tensions of war.

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She Goes to War, on the other hand, was released a full decade later and provided a serious reflection on the horrors of trench warfare at a time when Americans had grown cynical about their participation in the Great War. Although very different in these respects, the two films did share another theme and focus: each of the plots revolved around a central character transgressing the gender norms during wartime.

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Produced by Mack Sennett, Yankee Doodle in Berlin starred Bothwell Browne, a famous European female impersonator.

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Bothwell plays the heroic lead role of Captain Bob White, an aviator who lands behind enemy lines and disguises himself as a woman into order to infiltrate and spy on Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Crown Prince, and other German military leaders. In that disguise, Captain Bob performs a solo dance before the German High Command in a costume and style reminiscent of the “Orientalist” performances of the real life spy, “Mata Hari.”

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To understand the popularity of this gender-bending satire, it is necessary to return to pre-war Germany and the infamous Eulenburg affair (1907-1909)—Germany’s version of the notorious Oscar Wilde trial. In the first decade of the twentieth century, approximately 20 German military officers were convicted by courts-martial of engaging in homosexual activities; 6 committed suicide under pressure of blackmail. Further scandal followed in 1907 when the Kaiser’s chancellor and close confidant, the Prince of Eulenburg-Hertefeld was accused in several court martial and civil trials of engaging in homosexual liaisons with General Kuno Graf von Moltke and other members of the Kaiser’s inner circle.

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In 1907, it had also came out that at Wilhelm’s vacation estate in the Black Forest, one of the Kaiser’s male guests, the Military Secretariat Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler, had died of a heart attack after entertaining the guests with a solo dance dressed in a woman’s ballet tutu. Naturally, scenes from Yankee Doodle in which the hero-spy performs a cross-dressing dance to entertain the Kaiser’s military high command would have reminded audiences of the earlier scandals and cast doubt on the enemy leadership’s proclivities and morals.

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In fact, in the November 1907 issue of the German satirical magazine, Ulk, the publishers included a biting satire of their own at the height of the scandal with an illustration of the unhappy royal couple. Captions had the “wife” (German Empress Auguste Viktoria) saying: “I wish you could be a man,” and the dejected “husband” (Kaiser Wilhelm) replying: “Yes, I wish you could be one too!”

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In fact, Yankee Doodle in Berlin was one of two anti-German propaganda films under production in America during the war that starred famous transvestites. The other film, Over the Rhine starred the American female impersonator, Julian Eltin, (and also introduced Rudy Valentino).

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 The project was shelved by the cessation of hostilities in 1918, although it was recut, edited, and released in 1920 under the title The Adventuress, and again in 1922 as The Isle of Love.

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During the war, propagandists also took aim at the German Crown Prince who had a reputation as a ladies’ man and womanizer. One item in the Wolfsonian library collection caricatures “The Kronprinz on the war-path” by depicting him as a “peeping Tom” who is unwittingly ogling his swinish father’s derriere!

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 GIFT OF FRANCIS X. LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Where Yankee Doodle in Berlin was intended as war (or postwar) propaganda using a man dressing as a woman to elicit laughs at the expense of the enemy leaders, She Goes to War had a female lead disguising herself as a soldier and witnessing the horrors of the Great War. While recruiting posters printed during the war did depict women in sailor suits and naval uniforms, these were generally designed to encourage (or shame) men to sign up and take on their manly duties.

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1917 U.S. NAVY RECRUITING POSTERS BY HOWARD CHANDLER

COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

While thousands of women did don uniforms and play an important part in winning the war, they overwhelmingly did so as volunteer nurses and ambulance drivers.

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 GIFT OF FRANCIS X. LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Before the war, the vast majority of working women were restricted to domestic duties (either as housewives or servants) while some found employment in textile factories. As millions of men went off to war, however, women were encouraged to enlist as Red Cross nurses, or to work in essential war-related industries.

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GIFT OF PAMELA K. HARER

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GIFT OF FRANCIS X. LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Women nurses and ambulance drivers in Britain’s Volunteer Aid Detachment (or VAD) were not allowed to serve at the front lines until after 1915. The 2,800 women enrolling in the Royal Canadian Army’s Medical Corps, however, received paramilitary small arms training and drill; 43 died during the conflict. More than 12,000 American women enlisted as nurses or auxiliaries in the US Navy and Marine Corps; 400 perished in the war.

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PROMISED GIFT OF MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.

The idea promoted in She Goes to War that women might see combat in the First World War was not such a stretch from reality. One Russian peasant woman, Maria Bochkareva, famously fought with the Russian Army from November 1914 through May 1917, rising to the rank of non-commissioned officer.

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With the authorization of Kerensky’s Provisional Government, she formed and commanded the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death. The all-woman unit shamed their hesitant male comrades who were unwilling to leave the safety of their trench by going “over the top” without them. Their bold attack forced the German enemy to retreat from three lines of trenches, but when promised reinforcements failed to arrive, the Russian “Amazons” were themselves forced to retreat and give up their hard-won territorial gains. Maria Bochkareva’s unit was still at the front when the Russian revolution broke out. After the unit disbanded, she continued to serve with the “White” army forces fighting against the “Reds” during the ensuing Civil War. She was eventually captured and executed by the Communists.

~ by "The Chief" on March 31, 2015.

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