The Little American (1917)
“The silent sufferers.”
Director: Cecil B. DeMille, Joseph Levering
Cast: Mary Pickford, Jack Holt, Raymond Hatton
Synopsis: A young American has her ship torpedoed by a German U-boat but makes it back to ancestral home in France, where she witnesses German brutality firsthand.
I suppose this silent Mary Pickford movie must count amongst America’s earliest war propaganda movies, being released just four months after the United States entered WWI. The Little American verges on the hysterical — in both emotional and (unintentionally) humorous terms — and pretty much establishes the format for this kind of thing. Everything was very black and white back in 1917, with no shades of grey in between. The Huns are all drunken rapists and the Allies are noble warriors moved to emotional gestures by Miss Pickford’s selfless heroics. Watching it nearly a century after it was first released, you can imagine the outraged gasps that must have greeted the sight of drunken Germans laughing at America’s Sweetheart’s vain brandishing of her national flag before they chased her up the stairs with all manner of nefarious deeds on their minds.
Pickford plays Angela Moore who, before the war, is wooed by both Count Jules de Destin (Raymond Hatton), who sports one of those jaunty ‘taches that turn up at the corners, and Karl von Austreim (Jack Holt), a German-American who does not. Despite the Count’s natty facial hair, Angela unaccountably prefers the angular von Austreim, but before a meaningful relationship can develop both men are called off to fight for their respective countries in the Great War. Suddenly finding herself bereft of male company, Angela journeys to France to visit her ailing Aunt. However, the USS Veritania — which is clearly supposed to be the Lusitania — is torpedoed by a German sub in mid-Atlantic and sunk. Nevertheless, our plucky heroine makes it to her family’s country estate only to be told that Auntie has passed on, leaving Angela as Lady of the Manor.
To make matters worse, the dastardly Bosch are on the rampage and before you know it, they’re hammering on Angela’s front door demanding ‘old wine and young women.’ However, Angela has already been re-united with the Count, now minus one of his arms, who has asked her to allow one of his men to pose as her butler so that he can telephone artillery positions to HQ while the rest of them leg it. Naturally, Angela is only too willing to help the cause, especially when the invading Germans drink all her wine and ravish her maids. One of those Germans just happens to be Angela’s old flame, who appears to have been about to do a little ravishing of his own before recognising his intended victim. Of course, the moment he realises who she is, von Austreim is struck with remorse (yeah, right.) and eventually comes to realise that he’s been fighting on the wrong side all along.
In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s easy to be flippant about the simplistic plots of old silent movies like The Little American, but there’s no doubt movies like this played an important part in galvanising public reaction at a time before instant communication. There was no TV in 1917 — there wasn’t even radio, so movies played a vital part in winning and maintaining the support of the general public for a war that was being fought thousands of miles away. No wonder, then, that Hollywood’s propaganda movies aimed straight for the emotional jugular: not only were the Huns baby-eating swine, they were picking on America’s Sweetheart!
It’s easy to see why Mary Pickford held such a hold over America at the time. She’s hugely appealing, and combines a feminine vulnerability with plucky resilience and courage to immense effect. She’s also a natural actress: just compare her largely naturalistic performance to those arm-flinging melodramatics of her two male co-stars. The storyline is tosh, and despite a running time that lasts little more than an hour, the pace drags noticeably just when it should be picking up. No classic then, but worth a viewing by those with an interest in early Hollywood movies.
(Reviewed 20th May 2013)