Corporal Kate (1926)
Status: Complete 35mm and 16mm prints and negatives held by the Library of Congress and the UCLA film archive.
Hollywood went through a major gender-reversing trend in the silent era. Film after film took plots and tropes and swapped the guys for the gals. Usually intended to be humorous (as in She’s a Sheik), these reversals were sometimes dramatic.
This is where Corporal Kate comes in. The Big Parade had been a smash in 1925. Why not take the story and reverse the genders? The John Gilbert role went to flapper actress Vera Reynolds. Reynolds was under contract with Cecil B. DeMille’s new studio, which was one of the leading purveyors of films that questioned and subverted gender roles. The Clinging Vines, Eve’s Leaves, Her Man o’ War… fascinating stuff.
I have seen relatively few Reynolds films but I like her very much. She is cute without being cloying and has a disarming sweetness that is very appealing. She reminds me of Viola Dana.
I had never even heard of the film before I was thumbing through William K. Everson’s film notes (and bless you, NYU, for making them available online) and stumbled across an offhand reference to it.
Photoplay was, I thought, needlessly cruel.
They were just as snarky in their capsule review:
The trade journal Motion Picture News had a more nuanced view of the film and felt that, while not a masterpiece, the film was worthy of praise and made for good entertainment.
Women in War Get the Spotlight
Their turn was bound to come, but it was up to the DeMille Pictures Corporation to see that with all these pictures on the late world war that members of the feminine sex should be the central figures, with men playing the role of supers. So it one is inclined to become captious and with the prophet exclaim: “How long, oh Lord, how long” this output of war pictures? he is partly disarmed by the fact that the hero is subordinated to the heroine or heroines, for there are three. Vera Reynolds and Julia Faye are two manicurists who decide to go “over-there” as entertainers for the Red Cross. But as entertainers they prove that they should have stuck to the barber shop. Yet they serve a purpose at that as probably every woman who enlisted.
Nominally a comedy the piece has a background of war that is as effective in an eight-reel picture as some of the so-called war specials. It suffers from an extremely tenuous plot, but is most of the time interesting, not through any plot development, but rather because of effective episodes such as the canteen entertainment, the doughnut distribution, the two New York girls making possible quarters in a disused stable, the ringing-true battle scenes, etc. Good performances are contributed by the star and the leading players. It is not a meat picture, but it is a good one and justifies itself.
THEME : Two manicurists in the world war. Their love for the same man and services in the war.
PRODUCTION HIGHLIGHTS: War scenes convincing and not moving picture-y. Good performances by cast. Intelligent direction.
EXPLOITATION ANGLES: Almost first of war pictures featuring the woman angle.
DRAWING POWER: Good
I wanna see it, darn it!
Army and Navy officers and enlisted soldiers were invited to view the film in New York:
This seems to have been a fairly common practice at the time. The Marine Reserve Corps added to the fun by showing off their bayonet skills in conjunction with the film.
According to Everson’s essay, Vera Reynolds’ character ends up losing an arm in the conflict. While he focused on this plot point’s similarity to The Big Parade, I think it is significant that the film allowed its leading lady to be injured in such a way. Movies tended (and still do to a certain extent) to make their heroine’s deaths and injuries “pretty,” for lack of better word. Even when the deaths are bloody, the blood tends to drip becomingly from the forehead or lip. An arm blown off? I have never seen that in a classic or silent war picture.
Unfortunately, Everson’s remarks make it impossible to tell whether he saw the film himself or was merely going off of historical records. Here’s hoping we get to see for ourselves very soon!