Hollywood has always had the habit of taking a successful European movie and ‘Americanizing’ them, often with very questionable results. In this movie’s case they were last in line as at the same time Reinhold Schünzel was directing Viktor und Viktoria in Germany in 1933, he was also shot a French-language version of the film as George and Georgette .
Two years later Victor Saville directed an English happy-go-lucky version titled First a Girl and starring Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale in 1935. However when filmmaker Blake Edwards directed his wife Julie Andrews in his updated version in 1982 accumulating 7 Academy Award Nomination (and winning one for Henry Mancini’s music) he finally made attempts to make the story more authentic
All this intrigue in making a story about gender identity back then was only ever acceptable as long as it was strictly a comedy and the audience were always kept in the know about who were the ‘real’ females.
It all starts when veteran hammy actor Viktor Hempel (Hermann Thimig) meets newcomer Susanne Lohr (Renate Müller) when they have both had very unsuccessful auditions. They strike up an unlikely friendship and later that night when he is unable to perform his drag act because he has a cold, he talks Susanne in standing for him. As she is broke as he is, she reluctantly agrees to do this for one night only.
He insists that to make it work ……. and net the 10 marks wages he is promised…..that she must pretend to be ‘Viktor’ off-stage as well as on. So here she is on stage unmistakably a woman but when she whips off her wig and reveals she is a ‘he’ everyone still gasps in total shock.
The audience loves her awkwardness on stage which they mistake as part of her act, as does the Impressario who knocks on her dressing room door offering to make her/him a major international star.
Her whirlwind tour lands her in London with Victor now her manager. She is the talk of the Town and attracts the attention of some Society people who befriend her. Lady Elinor (Hilde Hildebrand) and her beau Sir Douglas Sheffield (Fritz Odemar) are amused by her, but their handsome ‘Don Juan’ companion Robert (Adolf Wohlbrück who will later become Anton Walbrook) finds himself being attracted to him/her. Its only when he overhears Victor and Suzanne arguing does he realize the actual truth of the situation.
He never lets on of course and takes ‘Viktoria’ out for a lads night on the Town which has hilarious consequences when that end up in a London Pub. Or rather director Schünzel’s mistaken concept of what should be one..
1933 is a interesting year in German cinema as its the end of the Weimar Republic and where control of the studios will start be taken over by the State. This is after all not only the beginning of Hitler’s ascension but also the beginning of Goebbels’ propaganda. So in fact Viktor und Viktoria was an end of an era and fortunately for them they capped it off by being the Number One at the Box Office.
Schünzel was obviously a big fan of Busby Berkeley and American musicals in general as he ‘borrowed’ heavily from them in several of his scenes. His extremely talented cast seemed to love romping though this very entertaining unchallenging comedy. However It took another 50 years to pass for Blake Edwards to accurately identify who really was queer in what is after all a very queer story.
P.S. This is part of PIONEERS OF QUEER CINEMA Available by VIRTUAL CINEMAS across the U.S. starting 6/12 https://kinomarquee.com/