A teenaged tomboy, tired of being bossed around by her strict guardian, impersonates a man so she can have more fun, but discovers that being the opposite sex isn’t as easy as she had hoped.
I Don’t Want To Be A Man is like The Oyster Princess an early example of Ernst Lubitsch’s comic skills, and it also shares The Oyster Princess’ star, the irrepressible comedienne Ossi Oswalda, who in both films lends her name to the characters she plays. Here she plays a wild, rambunctious late teen barely under the control of her guardian/uncle and governess. (In reality it takes a while to work out that this middle-aged couple glaring disapprovingly out the window at Ossi’s mild antics outside are not her parents; they seemed rather coded as such.)
In the early scenes Ossi’s desires are constantly thwarted by the combined opposition of guardian and governess. So, right at the start she’s called inside after being found smoking and playing cards with some young men in the garden, she’s stopped in the middle of having a quick drink in the drawing room, and the troupe of young men serenading her outside – to whom she responds by rather libidinously tossing candies into their open mouths – is quickly driven way.
Of course the naturalness of these desires to cut loose and have a bit of fun are emphasised comically by the way, when Ossi is off the scene, the governess takes her own quick drag of a cigarette and the guardian helps himself to a drink. Still, it leaves Ossi tremulous with pent-up desires and emotions, with no means of release. Everything with her becomes expressed in sudden outbursts of excessive, physical gesture—watch how she wildly tosses her shoes over her shoulder when she takes them off while sitting on the bed, how she leaps on the butler for a piggy-back the minute her guardian has headed off on a business trip, or her wild dancing around her home. The latter two are comic gags as well, reactions on the one hand to her guardian’s plea that she be good to her governess and on the other to his subsequent musings on board his ship of how miserable she will be in his absence.
That these restrictions on Ossi’s behaviour are social ones and not those of this individual household becomes clear when a substitute guardian appears on the scene, the much younger Dr Kersten, who proceeds to institute an even more draconian set of restrictions. And when Ossi responds with an almost despairing “Why wasn’t I born a man?” she’s clearly aware that what she is suffering from here is the social construction of her role as a woman.
Hence, her decision to escape from the strictures of her life through disguising herself as a man. Dressing up as a man about the town is a liberating experience, expressed in the way that she now has the power to look where she will, to take pleasure in such male prerogatives as turning around to stare at women she passes in the street. Still, even if there is an underpinning of serious social commentary to the film, it’s all essentially played for laughs as in her first appearance to the world as a male when she kisses (and completely fools) the governess. And ultimately any leanings there might be here to a radical reconsideration of gender roles are pretty much abandoned in favour of drawing as essentially equivalent the male and female experience of the restrictions placed on them by society. This is played out through the way Ossi can experience social life in the ballroom alternatively as a female and as a male. So, her reaction to being jostled back and forth by a crowd of men and then again by the dancing couples is “These menfolk are so rough.” This is then paralleled when she’s subsequently chased by a crowd of women addressing her as “Sonny” and she cries “These womenfolk are so inconsiderate.”
There are some nice pieces of comic business in the scenes at the ballroom, such as when the need to visit the bathroom comes calling: dressed as a male, Ossi’s attempts to approach the ladies’ are inevitably thwarted, but at the same time she can’t quite bring herself to enter the men’s. It’s at this point she meets up with her substitute guardian Dr Kersten and in her new male persona ends up as his newfound buddy, smoking cigars with him in ideal male camaraderie. There’s plenty of critical opportunity now to tease out a homoerotic subtext, but I suspect what’s happening here is a sign more of Lubitsch’s taste for the absurd (as you also get in The Oyster Princess.)
At any rate, Dr Kersten and Ossi-as-male get increasingly inebriated and when they entwine arms to toast, their lips touch briefly and then return again for a kiss. The light brushing of the lips in a kiss returns in the carriage on their return home, where the standard comedy of mistaken identity plays itself out as the coachman delivers each to the other’s home. But any hints there are of gender fluidity and the crossing of the barriers delineating sexual identity are quickly dispelled as Ossi returns with relief to her female persona (“Being a man is really very exhausting”). They are dispelled too with her final, decisive declaration “I don’t want to be a man” as she ends up in a clinch with Dr Kersten, who has now evolved into a suitable romantic partner. This conclusion may seem disappointingly conservative given the film’s initial promise of a far more radical development of its story, but it’s still a fun, frothy ride on the way here.
By Ian Johnston ©2007 NotComing.com