Vera Reynolds and Julia Faye are a couple of manicurists who end up going “over there” during the First World War. Naturally, army life is more dangerous than either of them imagined.
When our girls were over there…
Silent films about the First World War can be broadly split into three categories: the nasty propaganda made during the war, the dark and sober meditations on the cost of the conflict made after the war, and the pictures that characterize the war as a place for camaraderie and romance (even if these things come at a terrible price).
When Corporal Kate was released in 1926, it was one of many pictures trying to recapture The Big Parade’s popular combination of war, fun, romance, pathos and loss. Its twist is that it is not about doughboys but doughgirls.
With war declared, men are enlisting left and right. In a brief prologue, we are shown John Clarke (Kenneth Thomson), a champion polo player and general rich kid who joins the army. Ignore him for a minute because we are about to meet the real heroes of the picture.
Kate O’Reilly (Vera Reynolds) and Becky Ginsberg (Julia Faye) are a couple of stylish big city manicurists in shiny stockings. They want to help out with the war effort and have enlisted in the army as entertainers for the troops.
To be honest, this casting worried me. I enjoyed Vera Reynolds’ performance in The Road to Yesterday very much and find her to be a likable girl-next-door type. Julia Faye, on the other hand… Well, to be honest, I have not liked many of her parts. Her expressions are exaggerated and her hyper behavior quickly grows tedious. She is more endured than enjoyed.
This time, however, Faye seems to have the right part, the right script and gives the right performance. She and Reynolds have great BFF chemistry and the endearingly awful song and dance numbers are pretty darn funny.
I also enjoyed the way the characters handle their new situation once they arrive in France. They are put up in a nasty stable and they complain about it, certainly, but then they roll up their sleeves and get to work. They sweep the floors, move enormous wagon wheels and general put their noses to the grindstone. The whole time, they are believable as a pair of slightly naïve but game young women who are doing their best and they work well as a team. No cattiness or nastiness between them and while Becky is clearly meant to be the more comedic of the two, she is not purely a figure for ridicule. This friendly dynamic remains rare to this day and I love seeing it here.
And now we hit a snag. Team Reynolds and Faye are knocking it out of the park and all is going swimmingly until the love interest is re-introduced. Previously, John Clarke had been portrayed as a one-percenter polo star who becomes a muleskinner in the army. He is now brought back into the story with a new layer of characterization: rapey shadow puppeteer. You read that right.
Oh, it starts well enough. Kate takes time out of her stall mucking to flirt with him through the window and then he saves her when horses stampede. We have our meet cute, our flirtation and we may even get a proper romance in another scene or two. And then things go south.
After Clarke saves Kate from the horses, he demands a kiss as payment. She refuses and he insists and the whole thing starts to get incredibly uncomfortable. The scene goes on for an excruciating three minutes as Clarke holds Kate up in the air and refuses to let her down until she kisses him. When she absolutely refuses, he dumps her in the lake.
We are not amused.
Clarke spends the next few scenes following Kate around, interfering with her musical performance, pulling her across her knee and smacking her backside with a ladle… all the while insisting that she owes him a kiss but she still refuses.
So, after he has sexually harassed, stalked and assaulted Kate, Clarke decides to bring out his can’t-miss finishing move: shadow puppets. He uses shadow puppets to flirt with her. And they aren’t even good shadow puppets. And Kate loves it. Leave me alone, I’ll be fine in a minute.
Where are the Germans when you need them? I know a ripe target for a howitzer.
Thank goodness we get more Kate and Becky scenes to tide us over after that unpleasantness. Our resourceful manicurists have converted the stable into a passable living area—just in time for the sergeant to reassign them to another mucky stall so a “real lady” can have the little room they worked so hard to clean. Kate and Becky jump the sergeant and have to be pulled off by the MPs. Go girls!
The lady in question is Evelyn (Majel Coleman), who ran in the smart set with Clarke. Kate is jealous (he might do shadow puppets with another woman!) but Evelyn is actually engaged to a British pilot and he just got leave to return and marry Evelyn in one week. (Three guesses as to how THIS is going to go.)
We are now supposed to think that Kate jumped the gun and is being unfair to Clarke and Evelyn. Baloney! Kate may have been wrong about Clarke and Evelyn being involved but she still has grievances. Evelyn stole Kate’s room and Clarke remains a rapey shadow puppeteer so I don’t really see why they are suddenly supposed to be sympathetic.
No war movie is complete without a Big Push scene and so we get one here. A furious German counterattack hits the stable where the women are billeted and the roof collapses on them. (I am being deliberately vague so as not to give away the third act.) With some characters fatally injured and others wounded, the women manage to move the debris and evacuate their people before the stable collapses. It’s an exciting scene with the female characters front and center doing what needs to be done in order to save lives. It shows how fabulous this film could have been.
You see, the problem with this picture is that any scene without Clarke works. The film purports to show the contributions of the women of WWI and it succeeds—until he shows up. Kate, Becky and even Evelyn are bold and bright and they don’t stand around waiting to be rescued when they come under mortar fire. When their driver is killed, they take the wheel and drive like crazy for safety. It’s so refreshing to see women treated this way but the skeezy romance for Kate really ruins things.
We also get the requisite pork jokes (Becky is Jewish) and the African-American soldiers speak in dialect title cards, like so:
(Dear Germans, please also aim for the title card writer. Thank you.)
Both Vera Reynolds and Julia Faye give splendid performances and while they do have their makeup and shiny stockings, they don’t shy away from bloody injuries, facial scars and losing a limb or two in the line of duty. (How many non-horror films allow heroines to lose limbs?) Yes, the plot is derivative but Reynolds and Faye really sell it. Kenneth Thomson’s character is repulsive but I can’t really blame him. He is charming enough in the early, pre-harassment scenes and so I think we can safely lay Clarke’s awful character at the feet of Zelda Sears, Marion Orth and Albert S. Le Vino, the credited screenwriters.
Corporal Kate is a deeply frustrating film. The good parts are so good and the bad parts are so bad that it’s difficult to reach a proper verdict. Honestly, I would recommend just skipping to all the Reynolds-Faye scenes and ignoring everything else. The hero is so aggressively unlikeable that he drags the entire film down with him. However, the can-do attitude and genuine friendship shared by Kate and Becky is so unusual appealing that it makes the picture worth seeing.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Corporal Kate has been released on DVD by Grapevine.