Drag shows and the American military

Sailors-Dancing-on-DeckAs the picture to my left shows, there is nothing new in the American military about men in what used to be an all-male, or predominantly-male, society still trying to resurrect a simulacrum of their civilian life.  Two musicals that emerged during and immediately after World War II make heavy use of men in drag.  The one with which most people are familiar is Roger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which revolved around sailors in the South Pacific during WWII.

Most people remember South Pacific for two reasons:  it’s principled stand against racism and the gooey hit song “Some Enchanted Evening.”  I doubt many think of the scene in which Ray Walston dresses himself up in a coconut shell bra for the amusement of his fellow sailors and Marines (starting at 3:02):

Irving Berlin made even greater use of drag performances in “This Is The Army,” the Broadway-style review he created for the Army. It’s all-male, all-Army cast toured throughout the European theater in the thick of the war, bring a great deal of pleasure to the troops.

Because it was a Broadway-style review, Berlin of course had to write parts for women. And because there were no women to be had, every female part was a drag part. I can’t find any discrete clips but the entire movie is below, with the drag scenes at 58:00, 1:08, 1:12, and 1:28.

As best as I can tell, regardless of whether individual performers and audience members were getting a homoerotic thrill from the drag performance, the purpose behind these WWII shows was entirely heterosexual: it was to fill the gap the troops felt in their lives because of the women they left behind.

That was then. This is now:

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Since the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, U.S. military bases have hosted a gay marriage ceremonies and a potluck gatherings. But on Saturday, servicemembers here may have been the first to take to the stage and perform as drag queens on a military installation in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender troops.

Drag queens and drag kings, to be precise.

Six servicemembers — gay, lesbian and straight — donned heavy makeup to dance and lip sync songs such as “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” for a raucous capacity crowd at the Rocker NCO Club at Kadena Air Base. The event was a fundraiser for the recently formed Okinawa chapter of OutServe-SLDN, which is the largest nonprofit advocate for the military’s LGBT community.

[snip]

But an initial 200 tickets were plucked up almost immediately, so they issued another 200.

“We ended up selling 400 tickets in 10 days,” she said.

Amid the unexpected success, OutServe carefully avoided any mention of politics, but its variety show comes at a pivotal time for gay civil rights in the United States, with many states passing laws dealing with marriage or debating individual liberties.

It is also a sign of the times within the military; just a few years ago, gay and lesbian drag performances on a military base would have been unthinkable and potentially a cause for dismissal from the service.

The repeals of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, as well as the Defense of Marriage Act — the law barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages — have allowed gays and lesbians in the military to be open with their sexuality for the first time.

The historic shift appears to be mostly accepted and embraced throughout the ranks despite warnings the DADT repeal could harm order and good discipline.

On Saturday night, the Rocker club was packed for performances by servicemembers using stage names such as Chocolate Sunrise – a crowd favorite — and Artemis Faux. The event’s sole lesbian performer took the drag king name Manny Nuff.

I think Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, and Oscar Hammerstein would be surprised.

I leave to your personal beliefs whether this is a change for the better or not, insofar as American military health is concerned. I just note that the military’s focus has changed a lot in the last seventy or so years.

Smooth patriotic music from 1944 *UPDATED*

WWII was a dreadful time, with about 400,000 American military deaths suffered during those four years.  Just for perspective, we’ve been in Iraq for almost six years and, thank God, have sustained only 4,200 deaths.

Nevertheless, there’s a tendency to look back with nostalgia on America’s time during WWII, and that’s in part because the entertainment world and the news media were so completely on board with the war effort.  More than 60 years after War’s end, the historic record is bathed in a golden glow of national unity, with the conscripted troops the stuff of admiration and romance.

The era is also refreshing in that, in those pre-PC times, Americans felt no compunction about calling the enemy an enemy.  The movie makers didn’t need to pretend that Germans and Japanese were basically good people under bad leadership.  This freed them from the obligation modern movie makers feel to create only pretend enemies or, even better, paint America itself as the bad guy.  Instead, in those old movies, you knew who the bad guys were (them) and who the good guys were (us).

I’ve been watching some of those old movies, which TCM played for Veterans Day and, in lieu of any news about which I wish to comment, am including here two of my favorite clips.  The first is from 1944′s Hollywood Canteen (which is a surprisingly awful movie), and the second from Irving Berlin’s 1943 show This is the Army, which is one of my favorite wartime movies, not least because it stars a rather charming Ronald Reagan:

Reagan is in the beginning of this next clip, but the song, which Frances Langford sings, starts at 1:10:

UPDATE:  While we’re on the subject, at least one town in England has figured out that its troops do matter, and the townspeople and the troops put on a show suitable for any 1940s movie.

News you can use — from the New York Times

Occasionally, the New York Times surprises me and prints genuinely useful information, such as this tidbit:

It was the highest-grossing film of 1943, but “This Is the Army” has never been available on home video in an authorized edition. But now Warner Home Video has managed to clear the rights to this rousing propaganda musical, which features a score by Irving Berlin, a cast that includes two future California politicians — George Murphy and Ronald Reagan — as father and son, and gorgeous, three-strip Technicolor cinematography by Bert Glennon and Sol Polito.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film was based on a touring stage production, featuring actual soldiers (some 350 appear in the movie), that was conceived by Berlin as a money-raiser for the Army Emergency Fund. After you’ve seen Kate Smith belt out “God Bless America” and heard the tiny Berlin warble his way through “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” you’ll be ready to write a check yourself.

Warner’s has packaged “This Is the Army” with two other wartime revues, David Butler’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars” and Delmer Daves’s “Hollywood Canteen,” in a superbly produced boxed set. Also included is a new documentary, “Warner at War,” which traces the studio’s bold interventionist policy, beginning with “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” in 1939. (Warner Home Video, $39.98, not rated)

Hurrah!  I know what I want for Christmas/Hannukah.