Men in Drag
As if it weren’t enough that men dominated silent film comedy in general there were a few male comics who specialized in drag and often played female characters. Drag was a common and sure-fire laugh getter and almost every comedian, male and female, took advantage of it at some point. In the 1910s and 1920s a number of the guys spent some time in women’s clothing and encroached into the ladies’ territory.
John Bunny was perhaps the first globally-known movie comedian. Rotund, bulbous, and red-faced, he looked like Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch come to life. Remembered for playing harassed husbands, Bunny started his movie career in 1910, and it wasn’t long after that he started turning up in crinoline and lace. Among Bunny’s feminine performances is Doctor Bridget (1912) where “she” is the Irish cook who decides that the way to cure the sickly pampered son of her employers is to get rid of the fancy doctors and medicines and put him to good old-fashioned work, and Bunny’s Honeymoon (1913) where to teach wastrel Wally Van a lesson the old comic poses as the wife that Van married on a drunken spree. The prospect of Bunny as his bride sobers Wally up pretty quickly.
Another heavyweight clown with great skill in cross-dressing was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Becoming popular at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Comedies in 1913, Arbuckle was an out and out slapstick practitioner as opposed to the more situational John Bunny. When Arbuckle played ladies in shorts like Rebecca’s Wedding Day (1914), and particularly Miss Fatty’s Seaside Lovers (1915), he took and gave out a great deal of physical punishment, usually as a fat heiress surrounded by fortune-hunting swains whose courtship consisted of slaps, kicks, and tremendous pratfalls. In other films such as Coney Island (1917) the comedian used women’s clothing as a disguise to get away from an overbearing wife.
Both Bunny and Arbuckle were fairly convincing in drag, but much more grotesque and outrageous were Wallace Beery and Frank Hayes. Wallace Beery is remembered today for 1930’s MGM classics like The Champ (1931) and Dinner at Eight (1933), but the earliest part of his career was spent in silent slapstick. In 1913 he began working at the Essanay Company in Chicago and made his first movie mark as a big lummox Swedish girl in the studio’s Sweedie comedies. In 1914 and 1915 the burly Beery, who towers above everyone else in the films, played a coy, flirtatious and extremely fickle maiden in shorts such as Sweedie Learns to Swim, She Landed a Big One, Sweedie the Laundress, and Topsy Turvy Sweedie (all 1914). Sweedie’s love play consisted of slapping and punching, and “she” always took a lot of physical punishment in the big action wind-ups. From the Sweedie’s, Beery moved on to Sennett and Universal, and eventually used his comedy skills to break into features as a busy character actor.
Frank Hayes was a string bean of a comic who often performed without his teeth in numerous Mack Sennett comedies from 1914 on. Besides playing the occasional chief of the Keystone Cops and various fathers and farmers, Hayes specialized in comic spinsters for a wide variety of producers. In the Fox comedy Who’s Your Father? (1918) he’s an old crone who spreads a rumor that a foundling is actually the love-child of “herself” and hunky sheriff Tom Mix, and for the Mermaid comedy Sunless Sundays (1921) he’s the blue-nosed leader of a temperance organization that wants all spirits outlawed. Hayes also played girl’s school headmistresses for Larry Semon, flirty old maids opposite Al St John, and love-sick nurses with Billy West until his premature death in 1923.
The comedic cross-dressing tradition of these four would be continued in the 1920s by Syd Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and Fred Kovert, but the “King (or Queen) of the Cross-Dressers” was Julian Eltinge. A huge star as a female impersonator on the stage, Eltinge crossed over to films to headline in a few screen comedies. In the teens he did three for producer Jesse Lasky – The Countess Charming, The Clever Mrs. Carfax (both 1917), and The Widow’s Mite (1918). These titles did not have him actually playing a woman, but presented him as a young man who has to take on the impersonation of a female character because of plot demands.
Having begun his career at the turn of the century, by 1917 Eltinge had gotten fairly stocky, and his female portrayal at this time was more matron than ingénue. After An Adventuress (1920), a dramatic intrigue picture, Eltinge made one more silent comedy feature, the Al Christie-produced Madame Behave (1925). Again doing a double role, he had solid support from Ann Pennington, Jack Duffy, Tom Wilson, and director Scott Sidney. Eltinge would make one low-budget sound picture, Maid to Order, in 1931, but mostly stuck to the stage, where he continued working until 1940.
In the sound era male comics continued to turn up occasionally in movie drag, such as Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride (1949), or Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot (1959), but no one really specialized in it as they had in silent films.
–Steve Massa for Classic Movie Hub
Steve Massa is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy, Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress, The Museum of the Moving Image, The Smithsonian Institution, and The Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
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