[Classic Movie History Project 2016] The Emancipation of Ossi Oswalda: I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

This is my entry in the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen, and Silver Screenings.

Classic Movie History Project

Classic Movie History Project

Ossi gets emancipated

Ossi gets emancipated

THE EMANCIPATION OF OSSI OSWALDA: I DON’T WANT TO BE A MAN (1918)

“You are a dream; I hope I never meet you.”-Sylvia Plath

Reliable biographical information on German silent movie actress Ossi Oswalda is scant. Even worse, the crumbs that do exist often conflict with one another. To be blunt: facts are on particularly unreliable ground here. Matters are further gummed up by the early-film habit of naming characters after their actors. Ossi was often Ossi, or, to add variety, Össi. Who was who was who? Does it matter? Fortunately, since the focus of this essay is on her incredible comedic performance in I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918), I’m not particularly concerned with the trajectory of her personal life, or to what extent her true personality coursed through the veins of her screen selves. Even though her off-screen circumstances, opportunities, and choices undoubtedly affected her career, an understanding of them is not a fundamental component to enjoying her remarkable gifts.  It would benefit us to take a page from her delightful films, and, at least for the duration of this piece, leave the logical, workaday world behind in favor of the magical hinterland of the imagination. Let’s travel to a place, then, where time and reality don’t matter, where Our Heroine, in her various fictional disguises, is forever brave, scampish, and determined to grab every experience within her reach. 

Ossi Oswalda, circa 1917

Ossi Oswalda, circa 1917

To sheltered twenty-first century viewers, Ossi Oswalda can seem like a young woman ahead of her time. Her screen characters embrace values that we chauvinistically claim as exclusively ours: they are full of physical courage and a feminist resolve to be treated as equal to all comers, have spicy senses of humor, are confidently attractive, take chances as if they were made for risk, and rebel against the mundane as a matter of principle.

Silent film fans know better.

The 1910s were full of fantastic, modern role models. Actresses, especially movie comediennes, increasingly represented the emancipated feminine spirit of a fractious new age. One hundred years later, they remain exemplars of strength, ingenuity, good-humor, and adaptability. Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford were the most prominent, but they had loads of company. And Ossi was right there with them in terms of talent, personality, and star quality.

***

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918) 45 minutes

  • Director: Ernst Lubitsch
  • Writers: Ernst Lubitsch and Hanns Kräly
  • Cinematographer: Theodor Sparkuhl
  • Production Designer: Kurt Richter
  • Cast: Ossi Oswalda (Ossi); Curt Goetz (as Kurt Götz) (Dr. Kersten); Ferry Sikla (Counsellor Brockmüller); Margarete Kupfer (Gouvernante); Victor Janson.

FUN FACTS: Ossi Oswalda re-teamed with Ernst Lubitsch and Hanns Kräly for two fabulous 1919 comedies: The Doll and The Oyster Princess; Ossi Oswalda was known as the German Mary Pickford; Although WWI was still being fought, the conflict is not mentioned in this escapist film.

FAVE LINE: Gouvernante: “Well, out of the bath already?” Dr. Kersten: “Of course, one can’t stay in forever!”

A Comedy in Three Acts

A Comedy in Three Acts

Is there any human whose existence is more boring and aimless than that of a fettered rich girl, pre-women’s lib? Especially one who is under the fusty co-dominion of a guardian AND a governess?

Life only looks like a bowl of cherries

Life only looks like a bowl of cherries

It is a little-known fact that there is a precise limit to how many cherries one can eat in a day, week, or lifetime. Ossi has obviously reached that number, and not a moment too soon.

There are many lessons to be learned from our dashing heroine. Here are but a few.

OSSI’S TOP TIPS FOR ENJOYING LIFE:

 ONE: SOW YOUR OATS

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Disapproving Elders

Disapproving Elders

Her guardian and governess are incensed to catch her smoking, playing cards, and, gasp!, fraternizing with the Hired Help: Male Division.

TWO: ACKNOWLEDGING DOUBLE STANDARDS IS IMPORTANT

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Ossi has some admirers. A whole crowd of ’em. They are ill-behaved, to say the least.

Admirers

Admirers

Really, guys

Really, guys

Before we can blink, Ossi’s guardian drops dead. So long, old man. We hardly knew ye! Ossi, being ever-so-slightly under her full majority, is immediately presented with a new owner protector guardian. It…doesn’t go well.

Ossi being Ossi

Ossi being Ossi

The Meeting

The Meeting

Dr. Kersten (Kurt Goetz) is young and (supposedly) handsome, but he’ll have none of Ossi’s lip. He orders her about and calls her out on her deliberately bad manners. Uh-oh.

Is he for real?

Is he for real?

Then things…take a turn.

What a jerk!

What a jerk!

Yep, he's definitely a jerk!

Yep, he’s definitely a jerk!

An unexpected bedtime

An unexpected bedtime

A crime film waiting to happen

A crime film waiting to happen

THREE: SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SLEEP ON THINGS

Mourning her lot

Mourning her lot…and plotting her escape

Why wasn't I born a boy?

Why wasn’t I born a boy?

FOUR: ONCE A PLAN HAS BEEN FORMED, COMMIT TO IT 100%

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A nicely monocled gent

A nicely monocled gent

"Now the world is my oyster."

“Now the world is my oyster!”

A charming  young fellow

A charming young fellow

Ossi goes off to the town’s hottest nightspot, but runs into some unexpected transportation issues/gender norms. She is shamed into giving up her seat to a woman. Her feet get trampled on, but, oh well! Apparently, men aren’t allowed to cry out in pain. Who knew? Not Ossi! She’s already developing basic sympathy for the other half.

Shamed into standing

Shamed into standing

Wherever Ossi goes, and under all circumstances, she is the center of admiring attention. She digs it.

Mutual Admiration Society

Mutual Admiration Society

She’s barely stepped into the place before she spies Dr. Nemesis across the room. Ossi, of course, decides to do the logical thing and flirt with his lady friend.

Caught flirting with Ossi

Caught flirting with Ossi

FIVE: CONFIDENCE IS YOUR GREATEST ASSET

Whether laughing with the ladies…

Ladies' Choice

Ladies’ Choice

or befriending your guardian…

They talk it out and become friends

They talk it out and become friends

confidence is key!

SIX: IT’S HEALTHY TO ADMIT WHEN FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE WRONG

Ossi and Dr. Nemesis Friend party the night away at a table for two.

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Ossi and Dr. Friend are too drunk to tell their taxi driver where to go, so he improvises. Unfortunately, he gets their calling cards mixed up. When they come to, they are each in the wrong bed.

Cementing their friendship

Cementing their friendship

Not in Kansas

Not in Kansas

In the wrong bed

In the wrong bed

Ossi, of course, understands how she ended up in Dr. Friend’s bed, but he has no clue how he ended up in Ossi’s. The last thing he remembers is kissing that nice guy, which has nothing to do with Ossi. Hmmm.

They have the same goal, though: to get home without being seen by each other.

Sneaking out

Sneaking out

And she's off!

And she’s off!

Unfortunately, things come to a head in the front hall at Ossi’s house. He still has no idea that the young man is his new charge. There are lies and evasions on both sides, as well as a bit of flirting.

Dr. Friend is clearly smitten

Dr. Friend is clearly smitten…and still clueless

The truth always comes out sooner or later…

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Ossi: “That’s right, it’s me! And you allowed yourself to be kissed by me?”

The taste

The taste

Hilarious

Hilarious

SEVEN: IT’S OKAY TO CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORY! MEN DO IT ALL THE TIME.

Ossi

Ossi

Into line

Into line

Ossi and Dr. Friend

Ossi and Dr. Friend

This small

This small

Ossi triumphant

Ossi triumphant

I don't want to be a man

I don’t want to be a man

The End

The End

***

I Don’t Want to Be a Man is a minor-yet-utterly-charming outing by that future master of the delectable, naughty film comedy: Ernst Lubitsch. His direction gives it an impressively relaxed, louche, open-minded vibe that is entirely refreshing for that, or any, time period. The plot is handled with a wink and a kiss, plus a small dose of subversion thrown in for fun.

When you are young and do not have any legal rights or personal autonomy, it is easy to resort to subterfuge to get your way in life’s smaller matters. Smoking, drinking, gambling, and sneaking out for a night on the town are actions that allow Ossi to feel as if she has a modicum of control over herself. In 2016, she would be deemed an adult capable of making decisions on her own. In 1918, she was considered underage and in need of heavy monitoring and moralizing—especially since she was a girl. As soon as she dons traditionally male clothes, she is immediately accepted as old enough to gallivant about town and get some action, although she looks not a minute older than when she was wearing a dress and bow in her hair. The only difference the monocle and top hat make is that of automatic societal acceptance based on antiquated gender norms. No wonder Ossi usually walks around with a murderous expression on her face!

RMF: Resting Mayhem Face

RMF: Resting Mayhem Face

Life isn’t fair, and she knows it.

Dr. Kersten receives his well-deserved comeuppance, and Ossi is both personally victorious and wiser to the ways of the gendered world. At film’s end, they are on something approaching mutual ground. Although she never really wanted to “be a man,” now that she has tasted true freedom, it’s obvious that she will not be satisfied with a woman’s conventionally accepted portion. It’s fortunate that she has superb mastery of RMF. She’ll need it going forward.

***

Ossi Oswalda, in her third year as a film actress, is, like so many comediennes of that decade, a major revelation. She owns her skill with enough confidence to defeat a small army. There is something almost epic yet remarkably natural about the screen presence of Ossi and her peers (Mabel, Mary, Constance Talmadge, and so many others) that enables them to transcend their own time and ours, whilst retaining their disarming individuality and kinetic creative spark. Whatever caused that phenomenon isn’t around anymore.

***

“Ossi is Ossi is Ossi is Ossi.”-Definitely Not Gertrude Stein

Ossi Oswalda will always exist in the present tense. Her potent combination of effervescence, humor, elegance, subtlety, resourcefulness, plasticity, and intelligence means that she is permanently guaranteed at least a small spot in the Entertainment Firmament, Silent Movies Division: Comediennes.

Once ensconced there, you never die. It is always now.

All you need to do is make one stranger laugh or cry or smile.

And then another.

Unto eternity.

“Ossi is Ossi is Ossi is Ossi.”-Definitely Not Gertrude Stein

***

A BRIEF FASHION PARADE:

“Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”-Yves Saint-Laurent

Young Ossi’s personality shines through her rich-girl’s wardrobe, which is quite a feat. She definitely bends her clothes to her will, and isn’t afraid to use them to make strong statements about her mood. Ossi knows that they are wonderful tools to have in one’s Manipulation Kit.

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***

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in Ossi, I have upcoming reviews of her films The Oyster Princess (1919) and The Doll (1919). Check back soon!

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10 thoughts on “[Classic Movie History Project 2016] The Emancipation of Ossi Oswalda: I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

  1. Pingback: Check Out My Contribution to the Classic Movie History Project 2016! | A Small Press Life

  2. I love, LOVE this essay. I burst out laughing at this: “Resting Mayhem Face” and this: “Manipulation Kit”. The way you wrote this is sensational.

    I think I’d really like this film. It would be interesting to see a pre-Hollywood Ernst Lubitsch film, and very interesting to see Ossis Oswalda on film. She sounds funny and charming and empowering. Plus, the costumes look gorgeous.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and for sharing this fascinating piece of foreign film history. 🙂

    Like

    • Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Ruth. I had a lot of fun, as is probably obvious!

      Yeah, I thought that RBF did not do Ossi’s signature expression justice. Plus, she had reasons to be pissed.

      I think that you’d love this film, as well as Lubitsch and Oswalda’s next two collabs, The Doll and The Oyster Princess. Their work together kept getting better, and it was also very diverse. She was an incredibly talented performer, and Lubitsch already had most of his famous “touch.”

      Thanks for co-hosting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Day 6: Classic Movie History Project – Family Business and A Foreign Affair – Once upon a screen…

  4. Wonderful post! Indeed, silent films had wonderful female role-models. I’m watching The Doll soon to review ofr my blog, and I hope I can enjoy it a lot. I don’t want to be a man also sounds like a fascinanting film. Very well-written and fun post, congrats.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    Like

    • Thank you so much! I Don’t Want to Be a Man is definitely a fun, well-made film which was, in many ways, ahead of its time. The Doll is a really charming film, too, in a totally different way…I’m actually in the midst of doing a review for it, too.

      I’ll be sure to check out your post!

      Like

  5. Hi Fritzi: “She owns her skill with enough confidence to defeat a small army. ” That is a good observation. What is the problem with current movies? Do the actresses lack confidence, or are they not given the chance to show it?

    Like

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