The Little American (1917)
The star power of Mary Pickford is teamed with the directing power of Cecil B. DeMille to produce a war propaganda picture just as the United States prepares to send its first troops to France to fight in World War One. The movie pulls no punches in showing audiences what the USA will be fighting for, but it has a reputation for being clumsy and jingoistic today.
Mary is the titular representative of the United States, Angela Moore, living a privileged and sheltered life as a socialite on a large estate. She has two suitors: the French Count Jules de Destin (Raymond Hatton) and Karl von Austreim (Jack Holt), a German. As the movie opens, it is July 4, 1914 (which just happens to be Angela’s birthday), and she receives each of them in turn. She seems to prefer Karl, although he insists on teaching her little brother how to goose step. Karl is interrupted as he proposes by an urgent secret message calling him back to serve in the German military, and he honorably releases her from any obligations before he goes. When the Count informs her about the outbreak of war, her first though is of Karl and whether he may have been hurt in the fighting. She sends letters to Karl but hears nothing.
Angela has an aunt living in France whose family is all dead, so she decides to make Angela her heir and writes inviting her to come visit. On learning this, Angela writes to Karl and tells him she will be coming over on the “Veritania.” Karl receives her letter in the trenches, where he is serving as an officer of the occupying force. Meanwhile, Jules has been wounded in the fighting and we learn that his arm is to be amputated. Angela boards the “Veritania” and sets sail. That first night, there is a dance aboard ship and she quips that modern ships are so safe, they might be dancing in a club back home. Then a German U-Boat torpedoes the ship. The dance hall tips over and fills with water as the wealthy partiers struggle to reach the deck. People leap into the cold ocean waves and cling to detritus for buoyancy. Angela and a handful of others manage to get to a life raft. She holds up a small American flag and accuses the German U-Boat captain of firing on neutral civilians, but he laughs and assures her that a “patrol boat” will rescue them. Angela and her two male companions are eventually saved by what looks like a fishing boat.
Karl gets the news in his trench that the ship has been sunk and is unaware of any such rescues. His superior officers insist that he drink a toast to the U-Boat captain and he resists, but is forced to go along with the celebration. Next we see the German occupation of “Vangy,” evidently the town where Angela’s aunt’s estate is located. This begins with heavy shelling and the evacuation of the French army. Karl coordinates the shelling of the town and the one-armed Count Jules is in charge of the retreat. Angela now turns up at the estate in borrowed clothes (actually her coat and cap resemble a Confederate uniform for some reason). The servants are thrilled to see her but inform her that she is now the lady of the house – her aunt has died. Almost as soon as she arrives, a French soldier rushes into the house to advise that they abandon the estate before the Germans march in.
However, before she can follow this good advice, a French military ambulance breaks down outside the Chateau, and the wounded are brought in. When Angela looks into the eyes of the brave young men, she makes a snap decision to remain and serve as their nurse. She tells the servants to leave, but several of them stay behind with her. Now Jules arrives, on his way out before the Germans occupy the Chateau. He has an important task: to put in a secret telephone wire so that a scout can stay behind and inform his artillery of the positions of the German guns. He asks Angela to allow his man to masquerade as a butler so that he can be near the phone. Although she still regards herself as neutral, Angela agrees to the deception.
That night, Karl and his regiment arrive to take over the estate. They’ve heard that there are young girls at the Chateau and are looking forward to some “relaxation.” They begin by firing a rifle volley into the Chateau, killing the spy accidentally. Angela tells the maids to run and hide upstairs, and she bars the front door but doesn’t manage to get to safety herself before the soldiers break in. As soon as they get inside, they start smashing and looting at random. Karl opens bottles of wine by shattering them with his sidearm and then drinking out of the broken bottle (great way to cut your lip, also a waste of most of the wine!). Ultimately, they find Angela, who once again hoists her little flag and insists that they treat her as a neutral, but they laugh at her and chase her through the house. Meanwhile, Karl and his men hear the maids behind their door and break it in to get to them. Karl sees Angela run into another room and sends the soldiers aay so that he can go after her himself. In the dark room he stalks her, neither one recognizing the other until she draws back the blind just as he is about to ravish her.
This brings Karl to his senses, and he collapses before her in shame, but he refuses to save the maids. His Prussian training prevents him from disobeying orders. While the maids are being raped, Angela goes to find the superior officers, who have taken over the main living room. One of them informs her that the men must be allowed their “relaxation” and then forces Angela to clean his muddy boots. When she accidentally lights one on fire in the fireplace, Karl defends her and takes her away from the soldiers to a room with the brutalized maid.
The next day we see a group of French civilians, including some older men and young boys, who are sentenced to be shot for disobeying orders. Karl has arranged for Angela to get a pass to leave as an American neutral, but as she goes out of the house she witnesses the firing squad and changes her mind. Now she goes to the hidden telephone and makes contact with the French forces, informing them of where the guns have been stationed near the Chateau. Jules remonstrates with her but she bravely insists that they must fire on the house, risking her life in the name of the war effort. They begin their shelling and the Germans realize that they must have inside information to make such precise hits. They search the house for wires, and of course Karl finds the one dangling from the drainpipe that leads him to Angela. Shortly afterward the other soldiers figure it out too, and Angela makes him pretend to have captured her.
At the court martial they try to convince Angela to give false information to the French, but she refuses, saying that she “stopped being neutral and became a human being” when she saw “soldiers destroying women and shooting old men.” She is sentenced to death, and Karl’s discipline finally breaks. He makes a speech against the Kaiser and is also sentenced to be shot for treason. They are marched out to the wall and just as the firing squad prepares to fire a French shell hits the Chateau. She and Karl are buried in rubble but miraculously unhurt as the Germans retreat. Now they stumble about the town of Vangy as it is devastated in the fighting. They find a ruined church and sit beneath the cross as the walls topple around them.
The next morning a dawn patrol of French soldiers finds them and gives them medical attention. Jules agrees for Angela’s sake to save Karl. He is healed and put into what seems to be very humane military captivity, with frequent visits from Angela. Ultimately, the military government of France agrees to release him and Angela so that they may return to America. The movie closes with them kissing through barbed wire and a final cut to the Statue of Liberty.
I had heard a lot about how bad this movie is, and that probably had the effect of setting such low expectations that I could only be positively surprised. It certainly is a clumsy piece of war propaganda, but as far as that goes, it isn’t as bad as I had expected. The character of Karl, and that he ultimately winds up with Angela, suggests that it is not making a basic argument about the subhuman nature of all Germans, merely that the present system of militarism is forcing good Germans to behave badly. We do see him act in both cowardly and even brutal fashion under the influence of this system, and it takes the threatened death of his sweetheart to finally bring him around, but I actually find that more realistic than the usual instant change of heart that many movies bring about in order to keep the heroes of the story from having any failings. During the scenes in which Karl seems to go along with his regiment, I found myself thinking about the theories of “Kameradschaft” proposed by Thomas Kühne to explain the behavior of “good” German soldiers who committed atrocities in World War II.
The movie was both popular and controversial at the time of its release. It was banned for a time in Chicago out of concern that it would incite prejudice or violence against German-Americans. But, most audiences cheered at Mary’s patriotic speeches and agreed with the message as it was shown. The re-creation of the sinking of the Lusitania was a smart thing to include in a propaganda movie – for over two years now, this had been a source of anger among Americans and a catalyst for pro-intervention sympathies. Similarly, as unpleasant as the rape of the servants is, it is an important touchstone, referring to allegations of mass rape during the occupation of Belgium. It’s unusual to see something so graphic in a movie from this period, and I’m sure it was also a major source of controversy then as now, but DeMille couldn’t leave it out if he wanted to make the argument he was making.
With all of that in mind, however, the depiction of the German soldiers as orcs probably goes somewhat too far to be convincing to modern audiences. We see them destroying works of art and beautiful furniture for no reason, apparently just because they are uncivilized brutes, just as Karl’s smashing of wine bottles seems to be intended to suggest that Germans are too dumb to use corkscrews. Mary is forced to clean boots because of the power of the image, not because Germans routinely forced civilians into boot blacking. Much of the movie depends on a simplistic portrayal of French nobility, American innocence, and German depravity. It is what it is.
In that sense, it’s also not the best work of its director or star, who may have had difficulty working together as well. This was the second movie they made together, after “A Romance of the Redwoods,” and it was also their last collaboration. I suspect that it was a case of “not enough room on the set” for two egos quite so large, and that the two also had very different working styles. Pickford was also a co-producer on this with DeMille, and so the two effectively had equal power, which would only work in a very good working relationship. Pickford, despite her image as “America’s sweetheart” was a strong willed businesswoman who was one of the highest paid entertainers of her time and a competent producer to boot. DeMille had been directing for a much shorter time than she had acted, but had become one of the most successful directors in Hollywood after only three years in town. This could have fed both overconfidence and insecurity in dealing with someone like Pickford. This movie may have actually been a better collaboration from their perspective because they agreed on the message: DeMille had lost friends in the Lusitania sinking, and Pickford’s home country of Canada had been at war for nearly three years now. They both had axes to grind and it shows in the movie.
Personally, I’d recommend this movie more for its historical interest than its entertainment value, but if all you’ve heard about it is how terrible it is, you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff
Starring: Mary Pickford, Jack Holt, Raymond Hatton, Hobart Bosworth, Walter Long, Wallace Beery, Edythe Chapman, Ramon Novarro, Colleen Moore
Run Time: 1 hr, 3 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).