Sunday, May 3, 2015

First a Girl (1935) — Review

Not a great title, but it's
a fun film!
If you’ve seen the 1982 Blake Edwards film Victor/Victoria, you know the plot of the 1935 British film, First a Girl, since the the later film is a remake. Well, so’s the earlier film, which is based on a 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria, which was also remade (in German) in 1957. Wikipedia adds a 1975 Argentinian film, Mi novia el… (the title, according to Wikipedia was originally Mi novia el travesti—“My Girlfriend the Transvestite”—but censors made them chop the title). Before Julie Andrews sang “Le Jazz Hot” the story had been told four times, twice in German, although in 1982 it just seemed to radical that such a story could make it to the screen.

The films don’t map completely. It’s not like the 1931 Ricardo Cortez and 1941 Humphrey Bogart versions of The Maltese Falcon (Warner Brothers re-made The Maltese Falcon because the 1931 version couldn’t be re-released under the Motion Picture Code; leading them first to make 1936’s Satan Met a Lady). While the 1931 Falcon was too risqué for the screen by 1936, because of its suggestions that Spade has had sex with just about every female character in the film, plus there’s a stronger current of Spade gaybaiting men he doesn’t like, and Joel Cairo is more clearly depicted as gay, the British First a Girl seems to have made it past the censors, despite its flirtation with gay themes, as it opened in New York on January 3, 1936.

“Bill” (the drag name for Elizabeth, who is Victor only on stage) is described as “effeminate” and “not interested in women,” though the viewer knows that Bill is a woman in men’s clothing. Jessie Matthews doesn’t play a very convincing man, all doe eyed and shy. And though the only acting job Victor (played by Jessie Matthews’s husband, Sonnie Hale) can land is that of a female impersonator, he’s portrayed as completely heterosexual (though not interested in the winsome woman played by his wife). Somehow, Bill manages to out-smoke and out-drink the wealthy Robert (who gets referred to from time to time as “the Prince,” although he is just the fiancé of Princess Mironoff, which is described as a temporary position).

Unlike Julie Andrew’s character, Elizabeth is a shop girl at a fancy dress shop whose employer doesn’t consider her attractive enough to model dresses (it’s that boyish figure that allows later her to pull off being a man). She’s tasked to deliver a dress to Princess Mirinoff, who is sufficiently desirable as a client that she gets away with saying that if the dress isn’t there by 1 p.m. sharp, she’ll refuse delivery (what is this? pizza?). A note to the fashion designer: when a dress is supposed to be something special, don’t re-use that fabric in another dress, particularly a dress that gets worn by a large late-middle-aged woman, and if you are going to do that, don’t have your star stand next to her for a screen filled with dotted swiss.

The discovery plot is a little muddled on this one. The Princess and Robert engage in a bet as to whether “Bill” is a man who does drag or a woman who pretends to be a man when she’s off stage (that is, they’re certain that there’s cross-dressing involved, they just want to know the direction). Once they find that Bill’s stage persona and manager are both called Victor, it would seem to give things away. Eventually, after a series of subterfuges, they give up on pursuit, separately finding out the answer. That’s when the task gets bounced to a reporter who, in seeking an interview with the vacationing star, gets the suspicion that he’s a she.

Yes, we get the scene in which the actual male gets up in drag and does the parodic version of the star’s elegant stage number. Speaking of which the stage numbers in this film are fantastic. Although in black-and-white, they better what was done in Victor/Victoria. If you like 1930s movie dance numbers, this has clever ones. One particularly amazing one had the backup dances switching between male and female during a short blackout when you can only see their silhouettes. How they’d do that? Some amazingly quick costume change?

Blake Edwards gave us a great film, taking this story to places they couldn’t go in 1935 (although the most famous female of the era, Julian Eltinge claimed that he was straight, though no evidence of any relationships, male or female, has ever been found). Still, that justifies the remake without taking anything away from the earlier film. If you liked Victor/Victoria, check this one out. Well worth watching.
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