Dressed for laughs: Drag in the days of yore

Charlie Chaplin donned drag in “The Masquerader” and “A Woman” (1914 and 1915, respectively). Here, in the 1914 short “A Busy Day,” he plays a jealous wife who wreaks havoc en route to confront her husband.

BY TRAV S.D. | It’s Pride Month! We take the opportunity to recall that “LGBT” often comes with a “Q” appended to it. Queerness being by definition a wild card, we take the liberty of exploring a related, if tangential, phenomenon: drag performance in classic comedy.

Back in the day, nearly every comedian, major and minor, donned a dress at one time or another to make audiences laugh. Sometimes the comedy was pegged to how very unconvincing the men registered as female; other times, shocked laughter sprang from how believable the performers were as women.

Even a century and more ago, the practice was not new. As is well-known, all the female parts in Elizabethan theatre were men played by men, and this almost certainly had to have resulted in broad comedy (e.g., can you imagine how the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” must have been played?). British panto is famous for its Pantomime Dames. In American minstrel shows and vaudeville, every major comedian had a “wench” in his repertoire. Tony Hart, of the team of Harrigan and Hart, was especially esteemed in the 1870s and ’80s for his ability to do comedy drag — and a duo called the Russell Brothers played two foul-mouthed Irish serving girls.

When cinema came on the scene, it was inevitable this new medium would continue the stage tradition. Silent film comedy, dependent as it was on broad, visual gags, was especially suited to the ritual of donning dresses for laughs. (This is distinct, by the way, from the closely related phenomenon of vaudeville female impersonators, like Julian Eltinge or Bothwell Browne, who also made films. Female impersonation was about illusion and aesthetic beauty, with no comic component necessarily attached.)

During his first couple of years as a screen comedian, Charlie Chaplin did drag in several films. This was, of course, prior to the time when he was playing his Little Tramp, who had a mustache, in every single film. In “The Masquerader” (1914) and “A Woman” (1915), Charlie disguises himself as a female to evade antagonists — a frequent plot device. Most astonishing, though, is “A Busy Day” (1914), in which he is simply playing a female character for the duration of the film! This was surprisingly common in early silent comedy days. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle did this on several occasions, sometimes billing himself as “Miss Fatty,” although his character was just as often male, putting on skirts to escape one pursuer or another. Perhaps most grotesque of all, Wallace Beery, best known as the gruff, hypermasculine star of such films as “The Champ” (1931) and “Treasure Island” (1934), began his film career as a female character named “Sweedie” in a series of comedies for Essanay Studios. Naturally, much comedy was derived from Sweedie’s unattractiveness. Buster Keaton also did drag on a couple of occasions. Typically, his experimentation with the tactic was idiosyncratic. In the 1921 short “The Play House,” through trick photography, he plays every single performer and audience member in a vaudeville theatre, some of whom are women. And in the feature “Sherlock Jr.” (1924), he briefly dons a dress as a disguise, only to leap through a window and emerge as his male self on the other side — one of the most celebrated moments in all of his films.

In comedy duos, one member or the other of the team will tend to be the one who specializes in the drag turns, and it is usually the less conventionally “masculine” of the two. As a famous example, Stan Laurel of the team of Laurel and Hardy was the natural one to take on these chores, as Oliver Hardy was a much larger man and had a mustache. In their 1927 silent short “Duck Soup” and its 1930 remake “Another Fine Mess,” the boys are squatting in a vacant mansion while the owner is on vacation, when some visitors show up unexpectedly. Hardy pretends to be the butler of the house; Laurel, the maid. But in one of their most outré comedies, they both play drag roles. In “Twice Two” (1933), their characters are married to each other’s sisters, also played by the comedians, thanks to trick photography.

In the team of Wheeler and Woolsey, Bert Wheeler was the natural one to do drag turns. He had a naturally high-pitched voice, and played a character that seemed very much like an innocent young girl. His partner, Robert Woolsey, by contrast, had a rough voice and was rarely seen without a cigar, making drag much more of a stretch. The Wheeler and Woolsey comedies coincided with the Pre-Code era, and they appropriately stretch the sexual implications of gender ambiguity much further than most any other comedians of the classic era. In “Hips, Hips, Hooray” (1934), the pair is first discovered by viewers in bed together. They almost come off as husband and wife. Later in the film, Wheeler dons a lampshade as a tutu and dances around in it. In “So This is Africa” (1933), Wheeler, dressed as a native girl in a leopard skin two-piece, is seized by a Tarzan-type wild man, who carries him off to his tent for what can be only one purpose. And Wheeler doesn’t put up much of a fight, given the circumstances! The most drag-heavy Wheeler and Woolsey film is “Peach O’Reno” (1931). Wheeler spends a good hunk of the film in disguise as a naughty widow, in an attempt to ensnare a fellow in a divorce case.

Tyler Perry’s “Madea” character continues the tradition of comedic drag, in a long-running series of popular films. | Via tylerperrystudios.com

In other teams, the choice of which member would do drag was even easier because the roles of each comedian were more starkly drawn between “straight man” and comedian. In Hope and Crosby, for example, Bob Hope was very much the sillier of the two. In “The Road to Morocco” (1942), it is Hope who haunts the pair’s dreams as “Aunt Lucy.” And in “The Road to Rio” (1947), it is Hope who has the Carmen Miranda number . Later, without Bing Crosby, Hope dons drag to escape gangsters in “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951). In the team of Abbott and Costello, it is obviously Lou Costello who resorts to putting on a dress and makeup in films like “Lost in a Harem” (1944) and “Fun on the Run” (1949). As a later example of a comedy team with this kind of relationship, in Martin and Lewis, Jerry Lewis was the obvious guy to do comedy drag, Dean Martin being the heartthrob of the team. Lewis’ best-known routine along these lines is in “At War with the Army” (1950).

Comedy trios, of course, lacked this kind of polar gender dichotomy. In trios, all three members of the team tended to dress in drag together, as with the Ritz Brothers in “Argentine Nights” (1941) and The Three Stooges in “Nutty But Nice” (1940), Rhythm and Weep (1946) and Self Made Maids (1950).

One old theatrical warhorse, the 1892 English stage play “Charley’s Aunt” by Brandon Thomas has a drag turn at its heart, and has been adapted for the screen several times featuring famous comedians and comic actors, including Sydney Chaplin (1925), Charles Ruggles (1930), Jack Benny (1941), and the musical version ,“Where’s Charley?” (1952), with Ray Bolger.

Here is some cinematic irony: Today, Joe E. Brown is best-known for his performance in Billy Wilder’s drag-heavy comedy “Some Like it Hot” (1959) and for his utterance of the priceless line at the end of the film when Jack Lemmon reveals his identity to him. The irony is that Brown’s very presence in the film was self-referential. Brown was America’s top comedy star during the 1930s, and he resorted to low-comedy drag in many a film, including “When’s Your Birthday?” (1937); “Fit for a King” (1937), “The Daring Young Man” (1942), and “Chatterbox” (1943).

At any rate, by the time we get to the 1950s, the classic comedy torch was largely passed to television, where Milton Berle would make much comedy hay by doing drag. Drag comedy continues to the present day (Madea, anyone?) — although as a form that can be said to be less than respectful to women and transgender people on occasion, if not intrinsically, its future is an open question. It has certainly made people laugh in the past.

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