"Dad somewhat enjoyed being called gay," Cary Grant's daughter Jennifer wrote in her 2011 memoir. "He said it made women want to prove the assertion wrong."
The dashing Grant was clearly secure enough with himself to take on a gender-bending role in 1949. Howard Hawks' I Was a Male War Bride finds Grant in World War II Europe as the American accented French Army Capt. Henri Rochard. He plays opposite Ann Sheridan's actually American Lt. Catherine Gates.
The pair, thrown together on assignment, have an instant "sex antagonism," as Gates likes to call it. By circumstance and accident, she is given the dominant position of driving the motorcycle (with Rochard in the sidecar) and generally leading the mission.
Rather than react like a chauvinist, though, Rochard ultimately seems content with letting Gates steer the proceedings. As to the old adage of women being the weaker sex, he even says, "I believe they are stronger, and do you know why? Because they get enough sleep, that's why!"
No sooner do they tumble into love and want to get married when an obstacle course of red tape finds them forced apart without consummating their marriage as she is called back to the United States. In a brilliant precursor to '80s sitcom Bosom Buddies, Rochard must make like a lady in order to assert his rightful place as a military spouse and follow her home.
Filmed a few years past the height of the screwball comedy era, that genre's farcical sexual tension is still a smoldering highlight of this flick, which in this day of instant gratification feels like a slow burn with little return. And that's rather charming.
The vault print of I Was a Male War Bride screens Saturday (March 31) at 6:30 p.m. at Berkeley Pacific Film Archive as part of the theater's film series Howard Hawks: Measure of Man. Admission is $9.50.