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The Captain Is a Lady (1940), a title that seems a bit questionable in our less innocent age, is a charming little cross-dressing B-movie comedy from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a studio that gave even their B-movies the professional polish of their A pictures.
The story is not an original but, rather, one that had a long pedigree starting off as a popular novel called Old Lady 31 written by Louise Forsslund and published in 1909. Forsslund was a pseudonym for Mary Louise Foster and she came by her storytelling abilities naturally, having heard many a tall tale told by her father, Andrew W. Foster, to the clients of his hotel in Long Island, New York. As a young man, Foster had been a prospector in California during the Gold Rush of '49 and there had teamed up with another young man, Samuel Clemens, to look for gold in the Humboldt Mountains. They did not find any but Foster did strike a mother lode of stories about his partner who would later become world famous as Mark Twain. Foster would entertain his patrons with reminiscences of the great author.
His daughter's novel is set among the seafarers of Long Island and tells of a captain who loses his savings in a business venture. Unable to support his wife any longer, he admits her into an old ladies' home but growing lonely, decides to join her. The only way he can do that, however, is by donning women's clothes and registering as a woman. There he becomes known as "Old Lady 31."
Old Lady 31 was turned into a stage success by Rachel Crothers in 1916 and a British film under the same title in 1920. Perhaps MGM came by the property in a deal because, at the same time, they were filming another Crothers' stage hit, Susan and God (1940), as an A picture with Joan Crawford.
Charles Coburn is the captain forced to don drag and the role is a change of pace from the usual parts this often-used character actor was assigned. Coburn, now best-known as Barbara Stanwyck's card sharp father in The Lady Eve (1941), usually played aristocrats or faux-aristocrats, often wearing a monocle. He would go on to win an Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a wily matchmaker in The More the Merrier (1943). The Captain's spouse is played by Beulah Bondi, another often-seen character actress, most famous for playing James Stewart's "Ma" in both Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Also featured in the cast is young juvenile Dan Dailey, then billed as Dan Dailey, Jr.
The Captain Is a Lady is another in the long line of Hollywood comedies that would put actors in women's clothing. It is a chance to see how Charles Coburn stacks up against those other famous accidental transvestites, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot (1959) and Tom Hanks in the TV series, Bosom Buddies (1980).
Director: Robert B. Sinclair
Producer: Frederick Stephani
Writer: Henry Clark based on the novel Old Lady 31 by Louise Forsslund and the play by Rachel Crothers
Cinematographer: Leonard Smith
Editor: Frank Hull
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Charles Coburn (Captain Abe Peabody), Beulah Bondi (Angie Peabody), Virginia Grey (Mary Peabody), Dan Dailey (Perth Nickerson), Billie Burke (Blossy Stort).
by Brian Cady