I Was A Male War Bride (1949)
June 19, 2020 | by Shannon
Ann Sheridan Pays Warner Bros. $35,000 and Drives a Motorcycle, Cary Grant’s a War Bride, Howard Hawks Likes Comedy, And Everybody Gets Sick!
Put Ann Sheridan, Cary Grant, and Howard Hawks together on a picture, and you know you’re in for an amazing film! I Was A Male War Bride (1949)—yes, you read that title right—is hilarious, entertaining, and stands the test of time, even if some of the dialogue and jokes fall short of political correctness by today’s standards. I Was a Male War Bride is everything you’d expect from a Hawksian comedy starring two of the era’s most talented stars.
I Was a Male War Bride would be one of Ann Sheridan’s last great film roles, and the pairing of Ann and Cary Grant will leave you wishing the two had made good on their intent to make more movies together.
Be sure to catch the film when it plays on TCM this upcoming Tuesday. You can also rent or purchase I Was A Male War Bride on Amazon here [aff. link].
And don’t forget to check out my podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood. Episode 14 is all about I Was A Male War Bride. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Pocket Casts here!
Let’s get right to the plot!
It’s post World War II Germany, and Henry Rochard (Cary Grant) is a French Army officer on a mission: he must travel to Bad Nauheim in order to convince a famous German lens maker named Schindler (Martin Miller) to come work for the Allies. Rochard will first pass through Heidelberg to pick up American Lieutenant Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan), who’s been assigned to assist him on the mission.
Henry and Catherine have a past—he’s been chasing her and she’s been running, with the intention of eventually being caught—so it’s obvious from the minute we see these two together that there’s some romantic tension.
Henry and Catherine begin their mission with good-natured teasing and bickering, which intensifies when they discover that the army doesn’t have any cars for them to take on their journey.
So they must ride a motorcycle with a sidecar.
Guess who rides in the sidecar?
Yep, it’s Henry. Right away, the classic Howard Hawks male/female relationship is established: Catherine, with her license to drive a motorcycle, will be the dominant partner in this relationship.
A Screwball Comedy Journey
Several mishaps occur on the way to Bad Nauheim, with Henry bearing the brunt of them: when Catherine drops her lipstick while they’re waiting for a train to pass, Henry, the dutiful gentleman, must go collect it, and gets stuck on top of the crossing gate as it starts to rise. Hey, Howard Hawks had to find some way to work in Cary Grant’s unparalleled knack for physical comedy, right?
Later, when they’ve arrived at Bad Nauheim, Henry offers to give the tired Catherine a back rub in her room before bed. She falls asleep in the middle of it, and then the door handle falls off as Henry tries to make a gentlemanly exit. He can’t get out, leading Catherine to believe he had the worst of intentions the whole time, and never left her room that night.
You’d think that Henry and Catherine would never talk to each other again after Henry goes undercover to find Schindler in the German black market, then ends up in jail after the police raid the place and Catherine doesn’t reveal Henry’s true identity, or admit to knowing him, when she’s initially questioned. To be fair, Henry did insult her just before he went undercover, refusing her help and telling her to act like she didn’t know him no matter what…but still…he probably hadn’t counted on being carted off to jail when he made that sassy request.
But it’s clear the Henry and Catherine are beginning to fall for each other. They successfully find Schindler and send him to France, before finally professing their love for each other after accidentally crashing their motorcycle into the largest haystack you’ve ever seen in your life.
Such an untraditional courtship foreshadows the untraditional marriage ceremony Henry and Catherine will have. After their desire to marry is approved by the army, they must then be married three times to appease regulations.
Still Not Happily Ever After
It’s not happily ever after at this point though. On their wedding night, Catherine’s best bud Kitty (Marion Marshall) knocks on the door, and informs Catherine that their unit just received new orders to ship out to the US in the morning. The girls must report to headquarters immediately. So the marriage of Henry and Catherine remains unconsummated.
Henry and Catherine must think fast if they want to stay together, for Henry’s not a US citizen. How can they get him to the US with Catherine? They discover that the immigration quota for the next two years is already full, so Henry and Catherine have to get creative: the only way to get Henry back to the US is through the War Brides Act, which allows for spouses of US military personnel to enter the US off quota.
Trouble is, it’s always a female bride of a male soldier taking advantage of the act. Everything, down to the paperwork filled out by applicants, which asks such feminine questions as ‘are you an expectant mother?’, assumes that the military personnel is male, and the alien spouse is female.
This is going to be one long trip to the US for Henry…!
A War Bride Under Public Law 271
With his application approved, Henry officially becomes “A War Bride under Public Law 271 of the Congress.” And before he sets foot on US soil, he’ll have to tell this to countless military personnel in positions of power at every checkpoint along the way.
Oh, and the marriage remains unconsummated because Henry and Catherine still aren’t allowed to sleep in the same building. Army regulations…
Eventually, Henry and Catherine get to the last leg of their journey. It’s finally time to board a ship to the US! Once on board, they can be together, and Henry won’t have to explain his war bride status ever again. But an incredulous navy officer won’t let Henry board the ship as Catherine’s war bride, so Catherine promptly dresses Henry in a female lieutenant’s uniform, and makes him a wig out of a horse’s tail to fool this officer into thinking Henry’s a woman.
Amazingly, the plan works, and the two finally board the ship. After Henry’s true identity is discovered, the navy apologizes to him for all the confusion, and Henry and Catherine finally spend their first night together as man and wife.
I Was a Male War Bride is such a unique and zany story, it seems like it must have come from the imaginations of Howard Hawks and his favorite writers. But the screenplay was actually inspired by the real life experiences of Professor Roger H. Charlier and Captain Marie Helen Glennon. Charlier was a Belgian Resistance fighter during WWII, and this guy was so awesome, I can’t resit sharing a a few of his contributions to the Allied victory.
As a resistance fighter, Charlier secretly delivered information to the Allies through the Red Cross and the Free University of Brussels. He also spied on German naval forces in Antwerp before being captured by the Germans. Charlier was eventually released, and would later help prepare cases for the prosecution of war crimes during the Nuremberg trials.
Around this time, Charlier met American Army nurse, Captain Marie Helen Glennon, who nursed Charlier back to health after an injury. The two would fall in love, marry, and go to the US with Charlier as Glennon’s “war bride” under Public Law 271. Charlier wrote a book about their unique adventure, with the catchy title, I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress. The book would be the basis of 1949’s I Was a Male War Bride.
How cool is that?!!!!
Well, director Howard Hawks actually wasn’t that excited by the book initially. But Hawks’ interest was piqued when he realized the great comedy potential of Charlier’s story.
Howard Hawks was an incredibly versatile director, and could literally do it all, from gritty crime pictures like Scarface (1932) to suspenseful film noirs like To Have and Have Not (1944) to luscious musicals, such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). But Hawks had a soft spot for comedy, and would say that [aff. link]
“Whenever I hear a story my first thought is how to make it into comedy, and I think of how to to make it into a drama only as a last resort.”
Hawks saw in Male War Bride the potential for his favorite type of comedy, that in which the woman is the dominant straight man, and the man plays the clown. Looking back on his distinguished career, Hawks would say that
“I think it’s fun to have a woman dominant and let the man be funniest. Katie [Hepburn] and Rosalind Russell and Ann Sheridan in I Was A Male War Bride did their share in being funny, but they played much straighter and left the other stuff to Cary [Grant].”
With the great comedy potential of Charlier’s story, and his buddy Cary Grant firmly in mind for the male lead, Hawks’ enthusiasm for Male War Bride grew.
Goodbye Warner Bros.
There was never any doubt that Cary Grant would play Henry Rochard in the film. And Ann Sheridan, after being artistically stifled at Warner Bros. for so long, couldn’t have been more thrilled when she was offered the female lead in Male War Bride.
If you remember from my post on Nora Prentiss, Ann had successfully negotiated an enviable deal with Warner Bros. in 1946. Under her new contract, Ann would make six pictures over three years for the studio, and she was granted script approval for each project. Ann was offered a few good roles in films that she readily accepted, such as Nora Prentiss (1947).
But towards the end of the three year deal, Ann found herself abused by the studio yet again: what good is script approval if you’re only offered dud scripts? The only difference this time around was that under her new contract, Warner Bros. couldn’t suspend Ann for turning projects down.
Ann would express her desire for film roles that didn’t capitalize on her sensual image in a 1947 interview with Louella Parsons:
“I’m too old to be an ‘oomph’ girl any more. You see, in the beginning, it was all right for me to do stories of that kind…I feel I must have benefitted by my experience or I wouldn’t still be on the screen after all these years—so now I want to act.”
So Ann, always proactive with her career goals, decided to buy out the last six months of her contract at Warner Bros. As she’d share in a 1965 interview:
“My option would have been up on January 8, 1949, so I had six months to go, approximately, and I didn’t want to sign with them again because I was not getting good properties…That’s when I bought my way out of Warner Bros…[for] $35,000. They wanted 50, we compromised at 35.”
According to Ann, the irony of it all was that just two weeks after she bought out the last six months of her contract, Jack Warner released Barbara Stanwyck from her contract at the studio for the same reason—he couldn’t find good roles for her—but Barbara wouldn’t have to pay a cent.
Ann would later say that she never could convince Warner Bros. that she could act: in her home studio’s mind, Ann Sheridan would always be the “Oomph Girl.”
So when Howard Hawks, at 20th Century Fox, offered Ann the plumb comedy role of Catherine Gates in Male War Bride, Ann didn’t have to think twice about accepting:
“…I would have taken anything of Howard Hawks’, and with Cary Grant in it, sight unseen.”
Hawks and Sheridan Finally Work Together
Ann’s role in I Was A Male War Bride was initially planned for a MGM contract player who’d just achieved stardom after years of bit parts, a young actress by the name of Ava Gardner. But Howard Hawks didn’t think Gardner, at this early stage of her career, had the experience or skill necessary to play opposite the masterful Cary Grant. As Hawks thought about who to cast in the role, he remembered how impressed he’d been with Ann before she became a star.
Ann had done a screen test for Hawks’ 1936 film, Road to Glory. The young Ann, not long in Hollywood, and with her thick Texas accent, was not what Hawks was looking for on that particular project, but he recognized her potential, and recommended that Jack Warner sign this charismatic newcomer.
Now, just over a decade later, Howard Hawks still hadn’t worked with Sheridan, and decided she’d be the perfect foil for Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride. Hawks needed an actress who could hold her own next to Grant, and he was confident in Ann’s ability to do this. Hawks would pay Ann the highest compliment when he said that
“She outlived some of the worst pictures you’ve ever known and became good. People liked her. They make her a star in spite of the bad pictures…she was quick and good and everything…if you’re going to make a good picture with Cary Grant, you’d better have somebody who’s pretty d – – – good along with him.”
Filming on Location
I Was a Male War Bride would be shot on location in Germany, with interiors at Shepperton Studios in England. It’s tempting to think that artistic integrity and a desire to lend authenticity to the story were the reasons behind 20th Century Fox’s decision to film on location. But the main motivation was actually quite practical. The studio had a large sum of money in Europe, and with the end of WWII, the war torn countries of the continent were eager to recover economically. As such, 20th Century Fox’s funds were impounded, and only accessible if the studio made pictures in Europe.
So filming in Europe it was!
The Genius of Cary Grant
Cary Grant is hands down one of the greatest comedians of the screen, and I Was A Male War Bride proved the perfect vehicle for Grant’s comedy genius. According to Ann, Grant even wrote a good chunk of the original screenplay for the film:
“I read the script, which was the longest thing I’d ever read in my life, and when Howard called me back to see if I’d read it he told me to tear out the first 85 pages because they weren’t going to use them. That was written off the cuff, mostly by Mr. Grant.”
Though Grant’s written contributions to the screenplay weren’t used, Howard Hawks encouraged Ann and Cary to ad-lib during filming, and many of their ad-libs ended up in the film. This ad-libbing is why the dialogue and comedy between Ann and Cary is so natural and believable.
Ann would give all the credit for this naturalness to Cary Grant, whose observation that in real life, people often talk over each other, not waiting for the other to finish a line, would be a key reason why the scenes between the two stars in Male War Bride flow so seamlessly and stand the test of time. Ann would say that whenever Howard Hawks would ask for input on a scene, it was always Grant who had the solution:
“…we’d sit and think, and it was invariably Cary. He would tell you what to say. Howard is a very clever man. He picks brains. And he had a very clever brain to pick with Cary Grant, believe me.”
No Stunt Doubles
Cary Grant even did his own stunts in the film, including the scene on the crossing gate I mention in the plot summary. He and Howard Hawks were inspired to throw that one in last minute, and it really is Cary, not a stunt double, balancing on the crossing gate as it rises vertically into the air!
Grant’s enthusiasm for stunt work rubbed off on Ann, and in all those scenes of Rochard and Catherine riding the motorcycle, it really is Cary and Ann doing the riding! Ann bravely stepped up to the plate, and drove that 400 pound motorcycle herself, with Cary in the sidecar, even in the rain. The only casualty from Ann’s sportsmanly daring was a rogue goose that got hit, which Ann felt so badly about, she broke down and cried.
Everyone Gets Sick
The filming of I Was A Male War Bride was a pleasant, fulfilling experience all around. That is, until basically everyone in the cast got sick. A bit player contracted jaundice after location shooting in Germany was complete, and it was all downhill from there.
Howard Hawks contracted some sort of “itch from sitting around,” probably hives, and then Ann got sick with an intestinal flu and pleurisy, which then turned into pneumonia. As a result, filming was suspended for two weeks. Marion Marshall, who played Kitty in the film—and incidentally, was Howard Hawks’ girlfriend at the time, was just about the only cast member who didn’t get sick during filming.
Though Ann’s illnesses from Male War Bride would contribute to her chronic respiratory problems, at the time of filming, it was Cary Grant’s illness that was most severe.
As soon as Ann recovered and filming resumed, Cary Grant became near fatally ill. Ann noticed something wasn’t right with Grant while they were filming the haystack scene, so she took his temperature. And then it was off to the hospital for Grant. He was diagnosed with hepatitis, complicated by jaundice.
Cary Grant reportedly lost 37 pounds during his three month convalescence, and later admitted that the illness proved almost fatal. The weight loss was so severe that Grant had to make screen tests before they resumed filming of Male War Bride to ensure that he’d gained enough weight back for continuity of his physical appearance in the film.
Howard Hawks, as was his way, would try to find comedy in the situation. He’d remark about Grant’s weight loss by pointing out that in the last scene filmed before Grant got sick—the scene where he drives the motorcycle into a haystack and professes his love to Sheridan, Grant looked like his usual self. But the second half of the scene was shot after Grant’s illness and weight loss, and Hawks would joke that
“Cary ran into a haystack on a motorcycle and came out weighing twenty pounds less.”
The expense of all the sickness delays meant that the last three weeks of filming Male War Bride would need to be done back in Hollywood. Hawks would painstakingly recreate the sets from Shepperton Studios based on photographs he took before leaving England. All in all, I Was A Male War Bride would take a staggering eight months to complete.
"The Best Comedy I've Ever Done"
But the effort and illnesses were arguably worth the reward. I Was A Male War Bride would be 20th Century Fox’s highest earning film of 1949, bringing in $4.5 million at the box office. Male War Bride would be the number one film in the US for two straight weeks, and ended up being the third most successful film of the entire year. Even Cary Grant, who undoubtedly had greatest cause to view the film in a negative light, would tell the New York Times after Male War Bride’s August 1949 premiere that
“I just saw the picture and the audience laughed themselves sick. I’ve been in many comedies but I’ve never heard an audience react like this one. I honestly feel it’s the best comedy I’ve ever done.”
Ann Sheridan shared Cary Grant’s enthusiasm for the film, and in the years after Male War Bride’s release, the two were both on the lookout for good scripts to present to Howard Hawks as a follow-up collaboration. Ann would say in a 1965 interview that
“We were going to make sequels. We talked to Mr. Hawks about it quite often, but there was just nothing that could come up to Male War Bride…We just never found another good comedy, that’s all. It’s a sin and a shame too, because I think we should have done two or three.”
Perfectly said Ann, I couldn’t agree more.
Ann and Travilla Style Next Week!
And join me next week for our last week with Star of the Month Ann Sheridan. I’ll be celebrating Ann through her friend, legendary fashion designer, Billy Travilla. I’ll explore Travilla’s fascinating life and career, his friendship with Ann, and highlight a few of his most famous designs for Hollywood’s most glamorous actresses, including Ann and Marilyn Monroe.