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In 1949 Cary Grant and director Howard Hawks released their third of four comic collaborations, I Was a Male War Bride. The film, based loosely on a true account, co-starred Ann Sheridan, a.k.a. Warner's "Oomph Girl." Grant plays Henri Rochard, a French officer who is paired with a WAC lieutenant for duties in post-WWII Europe. The two marry only to discover that the only way to get Rochard back to the US is via the War Brides Act (there being no provision for war grooms). Hijinks ensue, as Rochard must disguise himself as a woman and hide aboard a carrier returning to America.
I Was a Male War Bride was based upon the true account of the real Henri Rochard, a Belgian who married an American nurse; the experience was told in his story entitled I was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress. Understandably, the filmmakers shortened the title to something a little catchier and attempted to capture the magic Hawks and Grant had created with two earlier successes, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). The role of Grant's co-star needed to be played by an actress who could hold her own against one of the world's top movie stars; rising talent Ava Gardner was briefly considered for the part, but soon eliminated; Hawks wasn't sure she could handle the part. Instead, he pushed for Ann Sheridan, an actress he had personally screen-tested years before for The Road to Glory (1936). In the meantime, Sheridan had established herself as a versatile and charismatic actress with an aptitude for comedy and Hawks quickly secured her for the role.
Hawks was given license to cast whomever he wanted in the supporting roles, so he cast his current girlfriend, Marion Marshall, in the role of Sheridan's roommate. As the rest of the cast fell into place, the director prepared to film external locations in Germany and interiors in England. During production, however, the cast and crew suffered from an assortment of maladies: Marshall was the only principal to emerge unscathed from the experience. Sheridan contracted pleurisy that developed into pneumonia, suspending shooting for two weeks. Hawks broke out in mystery hives, as he described it, "an itch that started on the top of my head and went right through my balls and everything down to my feet." Lovely. The worst off was Grant: he fell seriously ill with a case of hepatitis complicated by jaundice. Production was shut down for three months while the actor convalesced and resumed only after Grant was able to regain around thirty pounds! Hawks best summed up the lapse in production: "Cary ran into a haystack on a motorcycle and came out weighing twenty pounds less."
Despite his illness, Grant thoroughly enjoyed making I Was a Male War Bride, calling it "the best comedy I've ever done." At first, however, he disagreed with Hawks over his performance. The director recalled in Hawks on Hawks by Joseph McBride, that "Cary was gonna put on a woman's uniform and be feminine. And he practiced little tricks, worked on 'em and everything, and I said, "Hey...don't work on it. We're not gonna do that." 'What do you mean?' "Well," I said, "just act like a man in woman's clothes." 'Oh, now, you're missing something there, Howard.' We'd gotten to Germany by that time, and the generals gave a party. I got on a WAC's outfit and a red wig, and I want to tell you, I looked funnier than Grant did. I came in, pulled out a cigar and said, "Got a light, general?" He didn't know who or what I was. He thought I was a WAC. Cary was having convulsions, and he said, 'You sold me, I know just what to do.' You make the wig out of a horse's tail. You show a horse's behind and dissolve to Cary, and he's just sitting there. He doesn't have to do anything."
Calling upon his vaudevillian roots, Grant also insisted upon doing his own stunts, including one in which he was lifted up by a railroad-crossing gate. Sheridan even got into the act, driving a 400-pound motorcycle with Grant in the sidecar for a sequence. She navigated the bike expertly, except for an unfortunate run-in with a goose; its death terribly upset the actress, but despite this Sheridan had a positive experience making the film.
I Was a Male War Bride was a box office success, eventually claiming the #3 film of the year for 1949. Audiences flocked to see their idol Grant dressed in drag, something the film is best remembered for, although he only appears as such for about ten minutes of screen time. Grant recalled, "I just saw the film and the audience laughed themselves sick. I've been in many comedies but I've never heard an audience react like this one." Just goes to show you that neither hives, pneumonia, hepatitis, nor a dead goose can stop a funny film.
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Hagar Wilde, Leonard Spigelgass, Charles Lederer
Art Direction: Albert Hogsett
Cinematography: Osmond H. Borradaile
Editing: James B. Clark
Music: Cyril Mockridge
Cast: Cary Grant (Capt. Henri Rochard), Ann Sheridan (Lt. Catherine Gates), Randy Stuart (Mae), William Neff (Capt. Jack Rumsey), Marion Marshall (Lt. Kitty Lawrence), Eugene Gericke (Tony Jowitt), Kenneth Tobey (Seaman).
BW-106m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin