LITTLE AMERICAN, THE (Cecil B. DeMille, 1917, USA, 80m, BW)
Cast: James Neill, Guy Oliver, Edythe Chapman, Lillian Leighton, Ben Alexander, DeWitt Jennings, Hobart Bosworth, Walter Long, Mary Pickford, Jack Holt, Raymond Hatton
Director: Cecil Demille, Cecil B. DeMille
Running Time: 81 min.
The Little American is a 1917 American silent romantic war drama film directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The film stars Mary Pickford (who also served as producer) as an American woman who is in love with both a German and a French soldier during World War I.
Karl Von Austreim (Jack Holt) lives in America with his German father and American mother. He notices a young lady, Angela More (Mary Pickford). As she is celebrating her birthday on the Fourth of July of 1914, she receives flowers from the French Count Jules De Destin (Raymond Hatton). They are interrupted by Karl, who also gives her a present. They soon battle for Angela's attention. To lose his competition, Count Jules arranges for Karl to be sent to Hamburg, where he will have to join his regiment. Angela is crushed when he announces he has to leave. The next day, Angela reads in the paper the Germans and French are at war and 10,000 Germans have been killed already.
Three months pass by without a word from Karl. Karl is wounded in the fighting. Word spreads that Germany will sink any ship which is thought to be carrying munitions to the Allies. Angela is aboard one of those ships when it is hit. Angela saves herself by climbing on a floating table and begging the attackers not to fire on the passengers. Angela is eventually rescued.
After weeks of ceaseless hammering from the German guns, the French fall back on Vangy. Angela arrives in Vangy as well to visit her aunt, only to discover she has died. The Old Prussians are bombing the city and Angela is requested to flee. However, she is determined to stay to nurse the wounded soldiers. Meanwhile, the Germans enter the chateau with the intention of getting drunk and enjoying themselves with the young women. A French soldier tries to help Angela escape, but she is unwilling to. He next asks her to let a French soldier spy on the Germans and inform the French via a secret hidden telephone. Angela is afraid, but gives them permission.
The Germans are intent on raping Angela, who is the only person in the mansion not to be hidden. She reveals herself to be an American to save herself, but they do not believe her. Angela attempts to run away and hide, but is discovered by a German soldier who turns out to be Karl. Angela orders him to save the other women in the house, but Karl responds he cannot give orders to his fellow Germans. She realizes there is nothing she can do. With permission to leave the mansion, she witnesses the execution of the French soldiers. She is heartbroken and decides to go back in for revenge.
Angela secretly calls the French with the hidden telephone and informs them that there are three gun holders near the chateau. The French prepare themselves and attack the Germans. The Germans realize someone is giving the French information and Karl catches Angela. He tries to help her escape, but they are caught. The commander orders that Angela be shot. When Karl tries to save her, he is to sentenced to be executed as well for treason. As the couple face death, the French bomb the mansion, enabling Angela and Karl to escape. They are too weak to run and collapse near a statue of Jesus. The next day, they are found by French soldiers. They initially want to shoot Karl, but Angela begs them to set him free. They eventually allow her to fly back to America with Karl by her side as a German prisoner.
Cecil B. De Mille collaborates with the celebrated silent actress Mary Pickford to make this patriotic romantic war drama, which was made just at the time America entered World War I. It's basically a WW1 propaganda film, largely attacking our brutal enemy -- the Germans. The Little American was released less than five months after the U.S. entered the First World War. It stars Mary Pickford, then the absolute living embodiment of gutsy, fresh-faced American girlhood, as Angela Moore, a character who embodies the same qualities. By imperiling this character—at the hands of the Germans, upon whom the U.S. had declared war—DeMille made a far-off conflict seem more personal.
The image of the ship’s ballroom, lurching violently, spilling Angela and other passengers into the rising waters, is perhaps the film’s best; in part because Pickford momentarily disappears into the crowd. But DeMille’s real interest is the image that follows it: the star, standing drenched but defiant on a floating piece of her drowned vessel, waving her stars-and-stripes handkerchief in the air and calling out these words to the German U-Boat captain staring down at her: “You’ve fired on American women and children!” Angela can’t believe that her citizenship affords her no protection. But this lesson will be hammered into her—and us—for the next forty minutes or so. In time she’ll make it to France, and to a dead relative’s mansion, now overrun by German soldiers. The soldiers “attack” the female servants of the household (we understand clearly what that word means) and shoot several local villagers. Angela is spared these fates, thanks to her past with the now-very conflicted German soldier, Karl.
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.
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