This two-reel narrative was produced as a “positive” film for young people, by a philanthropist concerned about the state of youth in America. It uses the theme of patriotism and the war effort to deliver a message about the innate decency of American boys.
The opening title explains this as a “Judge Brown Story,” but the judge is nowhere to be seen in this movie, so I’ll talk about him a little after going through my synopsis. The movie proper begins by introducing us to “Bud” (Wallis Brennan), a young man who likes to dress up in uniforms and play army games. He blows on his bugle and various other boys from the neighborhood rush over to line up for drilling. A couple of smaller children come up to ask if they can join in, and Bud takes them to a tree where he has marked the minimum height for participation. One makes it, the other does not. Then, that smaller boy gets the idea of standing on a rock, and Bud lets him in, not fooled, but appreciating the boy’s spunk. He gives the little boy a drum to beat while everyone marches. It isn’t long before he loses interest in all the hard walking and sits down under a tree with a puppy. When Bud finds out, he sentences the child to death for desertion, so the boy runs away quickly while the rest of the recruits fire their wooden guns at his back. The boy runs to his mother, who takes on the regiment with a frying pan and routs them, meanwhile beating the stuffing out of a dummy of Kaiser Wilhelm II that they set up for target practice.
Meanwhile, we meet “Reggie” (Robert Gordon), who is Bud’s older brother and has no interest in things military. He sits around in the backyard smoking and drinking lemonade served to him by an African American butler. His girlfriend Edith (Ruth Hampton) is reading the paper and learns that Reggie’s draft number is so low that there’s no chance he will be called up to serve, which is a relief to them both, as well as to Reggie and Bud’s mom, herself involved with pacifist meetings. Bud objects to the lack of patriotism and is sent to his room without dinner, but he says it’s fine because it’s a “meatless day” anyway. In his room, he puts up various recruiting posters and looks at them longingly. We learn that Edith’s sister also has a beau, who signed up for service because he wasn’t going to be drafted, setting up a new pressure on Reggie to demonstrate his manliness. Reggie goes to the bedroom he shares with Bud and takes down the recruitment poster from the wall, but Bud draws a line with chalk across the middle of the room – one side is for patriots, the other for cowards like Reggie.
The next day, Bud leads a counter-protest of his boys when Reggie and mom attend a peace meeting in the living room. They carry a sign that says “We Want Peace – After We Lick Em!” Edith, apparently finding this more amusing than the dull speeches inside, picks up an American flag and joins the march. Reggie is led back inside by his mother, making him seem all the more dominated and infantilized. That night, while Reggie sleeps, Bud reads a newspaper story about German air raids that kill women and children, and he resolves to take action. If Reggie won’t volunteer to fight, he can dress up as Reggie and sign up himself in his brother’s name! He puts on a false mustache and swipes a pair of Reggie’s glasses and some of his clothes, and heads down to a Recruiting Office. The soldier there looks like he would pretty much sign up any boy who said he wanted to join, whether he dressed up or not – he doesn’t even apply Bud’s “tree test” to see how tall he is.
The news comes out in the local paper’s “honor roll” of volunteer soldiers. Reggie is as surprised as anyone to see his name on the list, but before he finds out a soldier shakes his hand on the street and Edith’s sister sneaks up and kisses him! Edith now seems quite proud of Reggie, but mom is still deeply concerned. Then Reggie goes up to his room and shows Bud the article. He spots his glasses in Bud’s pocket and puts two and two together. The two brothers get into a fight, with Bud coming out on top and ordering Reggie to leave town so that he (Bud) can go through with his plan and join the army. Reggie says “uncle” and agrees. In the next scene, he’s at a train station, but of course there are recruitment posters there and he starts having second thoughts. Bud dresses up to report for duty, but he is met at the base by Reggie, who can’t let his kid brother do his duty for him. Bud seems astonished at first, but he smiles and runs off to tell Edith and his family the news. Everyone runs down to the base to see Reggie in his new uniform, and the servant sums up the situation, saying he “always knowed that boy had red, white, and blue blood in his veins.”
Classic movie fans will generally be familiar with Father Edward J. Flanagan and “Boys Town,” but they may not have realized how many similar projects there were in the United States at the time. This movie was made by the “Boy City Film Co.,” a project of Judge Willis Brown who did indeed run a chain of so-called “boy cities” across the nation. The Boy City Film Company produced a series of films to promote clean entertainment, of which this was the first. Most of them evidently did feature the Judge himself as a dispenser of wisdom and resolver of disputes, but this first movie only features him in a still photo as a prop. These movies are mostly lost, and would probably be entirely forgotten, except that the Judge was able to find a rather promising young man named King Vidor to direct them. This is not his first film (in fact he had been directing since 1913), but it is by far the earliest one I’ve ever seen. Given the heavy-handed intentions and presumably limited budget, it is a very effective movie, especially in terms of its comedy. The boy actors are charming, and always seem to give the adults a run for their money. Vidor seems to have internalized Judge Willis’s belief that boys “do not need to be saved,” and are naturally inclined towards goodness and decency, even when adults around them behave questionably. The movie comes across as innocently naïve, where it could have easily been foolish or preachy, which I believe is a testament to Vidor’s subtlety and sensitivity, more than to strength of the script itself.
Director: King Vidor
Starring: Wallis Brennan, Robert Gordon, Ruth Hampton, Mildred Davis
Run Time: 26 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).