Yankee Doodle dressed in drag

When you think of transgender individuals what comes to mind? Cher’s daughter, Chasity, becoming Chaz? The teased wigs and lots of eye make-up of Rupal’s contestants on the VH1 show “Rupaul’s Drag Race”? Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire”?

What about a female impersonator in a 1919 silent film?

Yankee Doodle in Berlin” (1919) features an interesting portrayal of a transgender person.  It is a 58 minute long Mack Sennett comedy and the lead male is dressed like a woman for all but three to five minutes of the film.

Captain White exposed as a man!

Captain Bob White, American soldier, has been charged with an important mission during World War I: infiltrating the enemy lines to find out secret plans. White bravely carries out the mission and disguises himself as a woman in order to seduce secrets out of the Germans.

Along the way, White meets a Belgian girl, played by Marie Provost, enslaved in a German labor camp. He saves her and dresses her like a German soldier, while he is dressed like a woman, so that she can safely escape.

As White is dressed like a woman, he punches and fights German soldiers, is ladylike enough to seduce Kaiser Wilhelm but exotic enough to shimmy in a Chinese dance number.

The gag of dressing up like another sex to trick authorities has been done hundreds of times in the movies. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye doing the “Sisters” number in “White Christmas,” Cary Grant in “I was a Male War Bride” or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like it Hot” just to name a few.

But this cross dressing comedy is slightly different from the man-in-a-dress joke we are used to. Captain Bob White was played by Bothwell Browne, a famous female impersonator.

Though famous for wearing dresses, his character in “Yankee Doodle in Berlin” wasn’t portrayed as overly flamboyant. He punched and kicked Germans, ran from Kaiser’s advances, hung from a flying plane by a rope and kissed the girl at the end.

Browne was only in one other film, “Among Those Present” (1919), but was the top female impersonator of his time. When “Yankee Doodle in Berlin” toured the theater circuit, Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauty’s performed and Browne did the dance number from the film, according to Turner Classic Movies’ prime time host Robert Osborne.

Captain White performing his seductive dance for German leaders.

Though Browne was popular, he had difficulty gaining approval on Broadway. According to a TCM blog post, he opened his own production of the play “Miss Jack” but Broadway was less than accepting to a play with all transgender actors and actresses.

Cross dressing was appropriate and accepted during the early 1900s as long as the female caricature was funny or sweet, according to Vaudeville, Old and New by Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly. However, Browne’s sensual dance in “Yankee Doodle in Berlin” and on-stage acts as Cleopatra made viewers uncomfortable.

Ninety years later, I still thought the movie was entertaining and had the same ridiculous comedy that all Mack Sennett films seem to have.

Before and after his brief film career, Browne was running the vaudeville circuit, but quit in the late 1920s. He ran a dance school in San Francisco until he died in 1947.

This is for the Queer Blog-a-thon hosted by Garbo Laughs. The blog-a-thon focuses on portrayals of gays, lesbians, trans-gender in classic film for LBGT month.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page and Radio Waves Over Hollywood Facebook page.

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9 thoughts on “Yankee Doodle dressed in drag

  1. Pingback: QUEER FILM BLOGATHON « Garbo Laughs

    • Thanks! And thanks for reading 🙂 It is interesting, I only wish I could have found more on Bothwell Browne or that he had done more films

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  2. Nice post Jess
    This was funny and interesting all at the same time
    Also, this is weird, but I love that sepia toned photo. Looks like it could be a dry plate, but I’m not 100%

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    • Thanks 🙂 That photo is interesting. Funny thing is I had one photo of him dressed as a woman and then found that one last minute on Flickr and used it instead. It is interesting and very nice though isn’t it?

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    • I think they originally played it for 100 year anniversary of the WW1 Armistice (yeh, I’ve had it taped since November and am just writing haha). Hopefully they do show it again soon! I try to tape the silent movies whenever they are on because no telling when they will be shown again!

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  3. Love your review of this film and the discussion of Browne’s career. I’d never heard of him before. Although Browne himself may or may not have been transgender, it sounds more like his character in the film was dressing up as a woman to disguise himself, which doesn’t necessarily imply anything about his gender identity. But it definitely sounds like a fun flick and one worth tracking down!

    Just a small note on language: when you say the film “features an interesting portrayal of a transgender,” you use “transgender” as a noun, which many transgender people consider offensive. Might want to change it to “a transgender person.” Just a helpful tip to avoid potentially hurt feelings or irked commenters. 🙂

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    • I had never heard of him either until I saw the film haha! I wish I could have found more about his life. I couldn’t find anything concrete on his gender identity so I mainly made it about his career and movie.

      Thanks for the heads up 🙂 I changed it to “transgender people.” I felt like I was using the word awkwardly because I wasn’t really sure how to properly use it. Thanks 🙂

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