Ernst Lubitsch’s 1918 I Dont’ Want to Be a Man is a remarkable pioneering film playing with sexual norms. Ossi Oswalda is a young girl, maybe 15 or 16, and a real hell-raiser. She drinks, she smokes, she plays poker with the boys. The underlying tone is that she’s probably also having sex with the boys. Her industrialist father can barely control her, even with the help of a governess. When her father gets called away on business to another country, a tutor (Curt Goetz) steps into the father roles. A young, handsome man, he at first dominates Oswalda, forcing her to cower to his stern ways. But she’s sick of women not having a fun. So she cross-dresses. She puts on some of her father’s evening clothing and steps out. Soon she’s walking down the street, checking out the ladies and they are checking her/him out back. When she gets to a dinner club, she sees her tutor and plans a little revenge. He’s with a lady. Oswalda gives her a real sensuous going over and the tutor’s date is very interested. When the tutor comes to confront Oswalda, his lady goes off to another man anyway. So not suspecting this is actually a girl, they go drinking.
After a long night of drinking, smoking cigars, getting sick, and doing manly things,, all exciting to our young cross-dresser, they pass out and go to their respective homes. Still thinking Oswalda is a man, on the carriage ride home, they start kissing. And when all the confusion is finally worked out and the two get together for real, Oswalda says, “I don’t want to be a man.” Which is maybe the least believable statement in all of cinema since it’s pretty clear that these two characters aren’t too concerned with gender norms much at all.
It’s a great comedy that’s also a pioneering queer film. Funny and also jaw-dropping. Anyone who watches a lot of silent film, especially from the 10s, knows that these filmmakers were exploring a lot of taboo territory and told stories that were risque and unexpected to modern eyes. This is a prime example of that phenomena. This film couldn’t have been made by a U.S. studio ever. Hell, probably not even today.