Drag in Cinema — The War Years

| Aug 6, 2018
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A Retro Rerun By Laurie Sheril

In The Army Now with Phil Silvers, Jane Wyman and Jimmy Durante.

With the approach of World War II movies got extremely patriotic, but along with that patriotism came “escapism.” Like the years during the great depression, audiences wanted to forget about their troubles. The fact that their country was embroiled in a great war and that their husbands and sons were thousands of miles away was something that was never far from their minds, though. The movies were one way they could “escape” while at the same time keep their morale high. Don’t forget, these movies were not only shown here, but to the fighting troops abroad.

Wartime comedies were some of the funniest (though in some cases “dated” by today’s standards) films to come along in the history of motion pictures. You’re in the Army Now (1941) was one of the earliest wartime men-in-the-military comedies (along with Abbot & Costello’s Buck Privates.) In this feature the drag comes into play when the “Schnozzle” himself, Jimmy Durante, puts on a make-shift skirt and platinum blonde locks to fool sergeant Joe Sawyer.

Johnny Downs in All-American Co-Ed.

Also, 1941 was a wartime comedy with a civilian theme. In All-American Co-ed Johnny Downs (former child star and a member of Our Gang comedies) starred as young man in college who gets accepted as a contestant in a beauty contest run by an all female school. The opening of the film is quite spectacular as it features a so-called musical production at the boy’s school where all the female parts are played by the male students. Another good scene is later on as Downs boards a train to attend the beauty contest in full drag. This inspires one of his chums to remark, “Wow! You look like Ginger Rogers.” And he does look pretty good, complete with platinum blonde wig, 1940s hat, and spectator pumps. Sadly once he arrives for the contest we really don’t see him in full drag anymore.

Dream Come True: Johnny Downs masquerading as a female student at an all-girl school in All-American Co-ed (1941) The video is 48 minutes long. Get your popcorn!

1944’s Abroad with Two Yanks provided more military hi-jinx with Dennis O’Keefe (who was also seen in drag in the film Sailors on Leave) and William Bendix masquerading as females to escape from MPs in Australia.

A tableau from the Broadway production of This is the Army.

Without a doubt, though, the biggest wartime extravaganza to feature drag was Warner’s This is the Army (1943) which featured everybody from Kate Smith to Ronald Reagan! Based on the play which featured an all military (and hence, an all-male) cast, “This is the Army” featured men as women in any roles that required it. Some of the more elaborate costumes and parts come toward the end of the film for some of the musical production numbers. Particularly one featuring “Mandy” in a surprising sexual role of a man playing a woman. Seems that during the war men could play women without homosexuality even hinted at.

June Haver surrounded by “beauties” in Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

If you catch This is the Army on TV, try to make sure it’s the complete version. Some public domain prints have been circulated that have cut some of the drag. American Movie Classics showed a restored complete version of this movie a couple of years ago, but strangely (for them) only showed it once.

Another film in which boys were called on to be chorus girls was 1944’s When Irish Eyes are Smiling. In the big production number June Haver (Mrs. Fred MacMurray) was the man surrounded by a bevy of beautiful girls all played by men. Hey, like I said, during the war you could get away with a lot!

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Category: Transgender Fun & Entertainment, Transgender History

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  1. dina dina says:

    I gotta kick out of seeing Noah Beery Jr romancing the faux girl in All American Co-Ed. 35 or 40 years later, he was “Rocky,” James Garner’s dad in Rockford Files.
    I did a Diner piece a long time ago about all-male military shows (written and performed in some instances by gay theater people) during WWII that featured drag – but also some cleverly disguised winks toward any gay audience members. Gay people have always served in the military even when it was “not allowed.”
    Good article here. Thank you.