Drag in Cinema — Pre-War Drama Drag

| Jul 9, 2018
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By Laurie Sheril

Arthur Treacher (of fish & chips fame) in Up the River.

The early days of sound not only produced comedies featuring drag, but dramas also. One good vehicle for drag has always been the murder mystery. Two popular series in the early ’30s were Bulldog Drummond and Perry Mason (yes, there was a movie series long before Raymond Burr played him on TV). In both of them, an element of female impersonation managed to slip in, in at least one entry in each series.

In The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936), Perry Mason is on the case, but needs help from his assistant “Spudsy” Drake (Eddie Acuff). (He is not to be confused with the character William Hopper played on the TV series, Paul Drake. “Spudsy” is what is referred to as “comic relief.”) When some information for the case needs to be sought at a fashionable ladies’ shop, Spudsy gets into drag, goes to said shop and proceeds to find out what he can, while dressed in fashionable (for the ’30s) ladies attire. Actually, he doesn’t look too bad even though he was never intended, I’m sure, to look like a beauty!

In Bulldog Drummond’s Bride (1939), most of the action takes place on a train. In order to elude Bulldog Drummond a bank robber (Edward Ciannelli) attempts to flee by getting on board an express that will take him far from the scene of the crime. To insure that his getaway is successful, he disguises himself as a (convincing, if not attractive) woman. Of course Drummond is on the same train, so I don’t have to tell you what the eventual outcome is. This particular impersonation was certainly not a comic-turn, but one of those “necessary” forays into drag that the villain needed in order to accomplish his heist!

If you look closely you’ll find characters in drag in other detective films series of the ’30s and ’40s, such as Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan. Right from the beginning, it was evident that using a villainous character in drag, was a good element for the plot!

Melvin Douglas in The Amazing Mr. Williams.

A 1938 film called Up the River focused not on those who chased the crooks, rather on the bad guys themselves. Arthur Treacher (Merv Griffin’s sidekick and Fish ‘n Chips entrepreneur ) and Preston Foster (one of Hollywood’s baddest bad guys ) break out of prison to help a fellow prisoner (Tony Martin). Since they are appearing in a prison show in drag, they naturally use this disguise while they are on the run. While it’s easy to see a comic actor like Treacher in drag, seeing the 6’ 2″ 200 lb. Foster in a girly-getup is quite a sight to behold! Actually it just goes to show you what a good make-up man can accomplish!

Drag showed up in most all of the detective and mystery films of the 1930s. Another example is one from the late 30s , “The Amazing Mr. Williams” (1939) which proved even leading men could be “leading ladies”! In this film, the dapper Melvyn Douglas portrays a homicide detective that uses a female disguise to catch a killer. I guess Mr. Douglas wasn’t willing to sacrifice his mustache in pursuit of the perfect disguise. Rather than shave it, he wore a rather odd-looking veil that covered his hirsute upper lip. Otherwise, his dress and stole seemed natural for the 1930s matron he appeared to be.

Next time we’ll take a look at more comic turns in drag as the movies head into the War years.

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