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.
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!”
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?
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
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
Ossi has some admirers. A whole crowd of ’em. They are ill-behaved, to say the least.
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.
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.
Then things…take a turn.
THREE: SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SLEEP ON THINGS
FOUR: ONCE A PLAN HAS BEEN FORMED, COMMIT TO IT 100%
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.
Wherever Ossi goes, and under all circumstances, she is the center of admiring attention. She digs it.
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.
FIVE: CONFIDENCE IS YOUR GREATEST ASSET
Whether laughing with the ladies…
or befriending your guardian…
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.
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.
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.
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.
The truth always comes out sooner or later…
Ossi: “That’s right, it’s me! And you allowed yourself to be kissed by me?”
SEVEN: IT’S OKAY TO CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORY! MEN DO IT ALL THE TIME.
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!
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.
“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.
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!