I Was a Male War Bride (1949)—yes, you read the title correctly—stands the test of time.
(Unless you’re sensitive to political incorrectness. If that’s you, probably avoid the film like the plague.)
I Was a Male War Bride is everything you’d expect from a Hawksian comedy starring two of the era’s most talented stars: Cary Grant is at his suave and comical best, while Ann Sheridan shines in one of her last great screen roles.
You can rent or purchase I Was a Male War Bride here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes of the film.
It’s post World War II Germany. 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. 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.
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.
And 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, only to end up in jail after the police raid the place and Catherine opts not to reveal Henry’s true identity–or even admit to knowing him–when she’s initially questioned.
But it’s clear the Henry and Catherine have begun 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 that follows.
After their desire to marry is approved by the army, Henry and Catherine must be married three times to appease regulations.
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Still Not Happily Ever After
It’s not happily ever after at this point though. On their wedding night, Catherine’s friend 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.
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, and the immigration quota for the next two years is already full.
Henry and Catherine 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.
Meanwhile, the marriage remains unconsummated because Henry and Catherine still aren’t allowed to sleep in the same building.
I Was a Make War Bride
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. 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.
And that’s the end of the film.
I Was a Male War Bride: A True Story
The screenplay of I Was a Male War Bride was inspired by the real life experiences of Professor Roger H. Charlier and Captain Marie Helen Glennon.
Charlier was a Belgian Resistance fighter during WWII. He 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 later helped 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 fell in love, married, and eventually got 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.
And the book inspired 1949’s I Was a Male War Bride.
Initially, director Howard Hawks wasn’t excited by Charlier’s story. But he soon saw the comedy potential, and decided to move forward with the film.
But Hawks had a soft spot for comedy [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.”
In Male War Bride, Howard Hawks saw the potential for his favorite type of comedy–that in which the woman is the dominant straight man, and the man plays the clown.
As Hawks later put it:
“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.
In 1946, Ann Sheridan negotiated an enviable contract with Warner Bros. The new contract stipulated that Ann would make six pictures over three years for the studio, with script approval for each project she accepted.
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, once again, with nothing but terrible scripts to choose from. It negated the power of her script approval. The studio could no longer put her on suspension for turning down a new project, but it was small consolation when what Ann really wanted was a good film role.
As Ann shared with Louella Parsons in a 1947 interview:
“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.”
Ann took initiative, and decided to leave Warner Bros. She’d have to buy out the last six months of her contract, but, as Ann remembered in 1965, it was a price she was willing to pay:
“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 later lamented that she never succeeded in convincing 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 I Was a 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 & Sheridan Finally Work Together on I Was a Male War Bride
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 Sheridan 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 and more:
“She outlived some of the worst pictures you’ve ever known and became good. People liked her. They made 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 damn good along with him.”
I Was a Male War Bride: Filming on Location
I Was a Male War Bride was shot on location in Germany, with interiors at Shepperton Studios in England. Surprisingly, authenticity and artistic integrity were not the reasons behind 20th Century Fox’s decision to film on location. The main motivation was practicality: the studio had a large sum of money in Europe. 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, only accessible if the studio made pictures in Europe.
With no other choice, I Was a Male War Bride began filming in Germany.
The Genius of Cary Grant
I Was A Male War Bride proved the perfect vehicle for Cary Grant’s comedy genius. According to Ann, Grant even wrote a good portion 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. Many of these ad-libs ended up in the film, explaining the naturalness of the comedy scenes between Ann and Cary.
Ann attributed all the credit for this naturalness to Cary Grant. Grant observed that in real life, people often talk over each other, not waiting for the other to finish a line. The implementation of this observation is a key reason why Male War Bride flows so seamlessly and stands the test of time.
Cary Grant’s contributions to the film didn’t end there. According to Ann, whenever Howard Hawks asked 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 on I Was a Male War Bride
Cary Grant even did his own stunts in the film, including the crossing gate lipstick recovery scene, where Cary balances on a crossing gate as it rises vertically into the air. The stunt itself was an ad lib, an inspired last minute addition to the film.
Grant’s enthusiasm for stunt work rubbed off on Ann. In all those scenes of Rochard and Catherine riding the motorcycle, it really is Cary and Ann doing the riding. Ann 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. Ann felt so badly about hitting the goose, 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 everyone got sick.
A bit player contracted jaundice after location shooting in Germany completed, and it was all downhill from there.
Howard Hawks contracted some sort of “itch from sitting around,” probably hives. 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 fatally ill. Ann noticed something wasn’t right with Grant while they filmed the haystack scene. She took his temperature. Grant was immediately sent to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with hepatitis, complicated by jaundice.
Cary Grant reportedly lost 37 pounds during his three month convalescence, later admitting that the illness was indeed almost fatal. The weight loss was so severe, Cary had to make screen tests before Male War Bride resumed filming to ensure that he’d gained enough weight back for continuity of his physical appearance in the film.
Howard Hawks later tried to find comedy in the situation, pointing out that Grant looks like his usual self at the start of the last scene filmed before he got sick—where he drives the motorcycle into a haystack and professes his love to Sheridan. But the second half of the scene, when Ann and Cary come out of the haystack, was shot after Grant’s illness and weight loss. So, as Hawks put it:
“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 Male War Bride filming would be done back in Hollywood. Hawks painstakingly recreated the sets from Shepperton Studios based on photographs he took before leaving England. All in all, I Was A Male War Bride took a lengthy eight months to complete.
"The Best Comedy I've Ever Done"
But the effort and illness were arguably worth the reward. I Was A Male War Bride was 20th Century Fox’s highest earning film of 1949, bringing in $4.5 million at the box office. Male War Bride was the number one film in the US for two straight weeks, and was ultimately the third most successful film of the year.
Even Cary Grant, who undoubtedly had greatest cause to view the film negatively, told 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. In the years after Male War Bride’s release, the two were anxious to work together with Howard Hawks on a follow-up collaboration. As Ann said in 1965:
“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.”
That's it for I Was a Male War Bride
That’s it for I Was Male War Bride.
Join me next week for all about Ann Sheridan and her friendship with fashion designer Billy Travilla.