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 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.
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.