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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Female Soldiers in the Cinema (originally published 9/97)

To hear the howls going up from some of our military academies over the admission of female cadets, you'd think that no woman had ever worn a military uniform in the history of our nation. But don't try telling that to the women who have served in the Women's Army Corps down through the years. Nor is "G.I. Jane," starring Demi Moore, the first movie to highlight the distaff side of the United States military. In fact, it isn't even the first film to use that title. The 1951 "G.I. Jane," however, was a light musical comedy about the complications arising from fraternization between WACs and a company of their male counterparts. This earlier film hasn't been released on video, but it sets the tone rather well for the female soldier pictures that are available. If you look for the following titles on home video, you'll undoubtedly notice a distinct trend.

"I Was a Male War Bride" (1949). Director Howard Hawks, one of the masters of the screwball comedy genre, teams up with Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan to create the definitive gender-bending military farce. Sheridan is a WAC lieutenant stationed in occupied Germany. There she meets and falls in love with a French officer, played by Grant. They decide to settle down in her native United States, but the only way he can enter the States is by being classified as a "war bride." It seems that there is no provision in the regulations for a war groom. Grant's character is subjected to one impossible situation after another, as he is assigned to housing facilities set aside for the war brides, then refused admission because he isn't a woman. Ultimately he becomes desperate enough to don a makeshift wig and a WAC uniform in a doomed effort to pass for female.

"Never Wave at a WAC" (1952). Rosiland Russell plays a Washington society hostess who joins the army more or less as a lark, convinced that her connections will secure her a cushy commission. It turns out, however, that she isn't as well connected as she thought. In short order she finds herself in uniform as a lowly private, suffering a series of comic indignities.

"Francis Joins the WACs" (1954). Francis, the talking mule, the big-screen forerunner of TV's "Mr. Ed," began his movie career as an army mule who befriends a soldier named Peter Stirling (Donald O'Connor). After a couple of pictures out of uniform, the pair ended up back in the service in this fifth film of the series. Due to a clerical error, Peter is drafted into a WAC unit under the mistaken impression that he is a woman.

"Operation Petticoat" (1959). Perhaps you've noticed a thematic thread running through most films of this type. It has to do with a bemused skepticism about the advisablity of enlisting women into military service in the first place. That attitude is most prominently on display in this Blake Edwards comedy, which exploits the comic potential of the age-old taboo that warns against having women on board a ship. In this case, the ship is a damaged submarine limping home after an attack at Manila Bay. Her captain, played by Cary Grant, makes the mistake of taking a group of army nurses on board. From that point on, what the army likes to refer to as "good order and discipline" becomes a thing of the past. The final indignity is the painting of the submarine. Paint being in short supply, the only way to have enough to cover the vessel is by mixing red and white. The result, of course, is a shocking shade of pink.

"Private Benjamin" (1980). A pampered rich girl, played by Goldie Hawn, enlists in the army after her husband dies on their wedding night. Much like Rosalind Russell's character in "Never Wave at a WAC," she goes into the service expecting it to be a lark, but ends up instead as just another private.

Although the new "G.I. Jane" is by no means the first movie about women in the military, it is, as you can see, one of the first to treat the subject as anything other than a joke. As the military gender wars play themselves out in courtrooms and academy hell weeks across the country, we can only wait to see who will get the last laugh.

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