Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Propaganda

Uncle Sam Donates for Liberty Bonds (1919)

Like “Uncle Sam vs. the IWW-Bolsheviki Rat” and “United Snakes of America,” this is a late-teens propaganda movie from the Ford Company. Unlike those, it has a positive message about supporting the troops, rather than a negative one about fighting internal enemies.

The frame centers on a large chest, labeled “U.S. War Chest,” with symbolic figures to either side. To the left is Uncle Sam, in his traditional hat and coat. To the right is a robed female figure, who may represent “victory,” “Columbia,” or just an idealized American Womanhood. They open the chest and inside the lid is written, “1st Liberty Loan: Prepare for War.” The woman gestures toward the chest and Uncle Sam pulls out a sockfull of money to toss in. They close and open the chest and now it reads, “2nd Liberty Loan: Equip.” Uncle Sam throws in his cuffs and collar. The next time, it reads, “3rd Liberty Loan: Transport.” Now Uncle Sam gives his jacket. Next, it says, “4th Liberty Loan: Fight.” Uncle Sam contributes his vest. Finally, they open it to see, “Victory Liberty Loan: Pay Our Debts and Bring Back Our Boys.” Uncle Sam throws in his shirt front and his hat. The movie ends as an animator’s hand appears to sign for the Ford Motor Company underneath the words, “Sure, We’ll Finish the Job!”

I was almost surprised by a movie from an ostensibly “right wing” source that advocated Americans giving money to support the government. Today, the message of Uncle Sam’s brief striptease would probably be that Americans are already expected to pay too much in taxes, and then they are duped into voluntarily supporting the government by buying worthless bonds as well. But this is not Ford’s intent. He is demonstrating that an ideal patriot (Uncle Sam) is one who gives to support the just cause of the war, even after it seems that he has no more to give, and even after the fighting is finished. No doubt, he believed that with hard work over the next few years, Sam would soon be able to buy back all of his clothes. That kind of optimism is hard to find today.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. Please comment if you do.

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Uncle Sam and the Bolsheviki-IWW Rat (1919)

This anti-Communist propaganda cartoon, presented in the style of a newspaper political comic, was produced by the Ford Motor Company at the height of the American “Red Scare.” It uses heavy-handed propaganda to make a fairly blunt (if dubious) comment.

As the movie opens, Uncle Sam is represented as a farmer in a barn stocked with corn. Bags of corn in front of Uncle Sam read “American Institutions” and a speech-bubble from Uncle Sam identifies the corn as “the fruits of our labor.” Then, a rat begins chewing its way through the wall. Uncle Sam crouches down behind the bags with a shovel, proclaiming, “I’ll get that varmint,” and a large black rat comes out of the hole. On it is written “Bolsheviki-IWW.” The rat is heedless of Uncle Sam and goes over to the corn, eagerly grabbing a piece in its jaws. Uncle Sam brings the shovel down on top of it, killing it, the hefts the rat out of the window with the shovel. He proclaims, “Bolshevists are the rats of civilization” and the movie ends.

Henry Ford, in addition to being a successful industrialist, was heavily active in the American far right. He was responsible for the printing of the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in this country, and his news magazine, “The Dearborn Independent” proclaimed any number of conspiracy theories that would fit right into INFOWARS today. With the successful revolution in Russia, and several lesser failed revolutions igniting throughout Europe at the end of the First World War, Ford’s crowd was increasingly concerned about the possibility of foreign influences fomenting labor unrest in the United States. The Industrial Workers of the World was a small but very radical labor union that mostly focused on organizing unskilled laborers, including immigrants. It is unlikely that the USSR, strapped for cash and fighting a Civil War at home, had much to offer their comrades in the IWW besides emotional support in 1919, but accuracy in reporting has never been important in political cartoons (or Internet memes). The real irony of this movie, though, is that it depicts organized labor as “stealing” the fruits of their own work from the embodiment of American society. How did Uncle Sam manage to steal all that corn from the rats in the first place?

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

100% American (1918)

Mary Pickford stars in this promotional film for the Fourth Liberty Bond during World War I. While it’s predictably preachy, the film does take advantage of its star’s charms and gives a brief narrative to hold the audience’s interest while arguing that it needs to “do without” in order to support the war effort.

Pickford is introduced a “Mayme,” a typical young American woman who likes to indulge in the pleasures of an affluent society. The story begins with her and a girlfriend or roommate at an amusement park, dazzled by all kinds of opportunities for meaningless consumption and fun. They are distracted by a man giving a speech – possibly a barker for some new attraction. He turns out to be a “four minute man” – a public speaker drumming up support for buying war bonds. At the climax of his speech, he points at the camera and asks, “What are you giving right now?” A reversal shows Mayme reacting to this question. Evidently she feels guilty for not doing enough. She and her friend continue along the boardwalk and Mayme window shops longingly, but resists the urge to go into a store and buy new clothes. Then she and her friend go to a soda shop. While her friend eats ice cream, Mayme orders water. Finally, she walks home alone to save car fare.

The next scene comes on “bond day.” Mayme stands in a line of people, ready to buy their war bonds. She has saved up a sizable wad of bills, but she gets nervous when an ugly man takes an interest in her, and she stashes the loot. When she reaches the head of the line, she looks in her purse and can’t find the money – she’s already forgotten that she hid it – and she accuses the ugly man of robbing her. A policeman comes over to shake him down and meanwhile, Mayme finds the money, buy her bond, and makes a hasty retreat after correcting her mistake.

The movie now looks forward to “after the war” when Mayme is qualified to go to a “100% American” dance with soldiers and other bond-holders. Her fashionable friend cannot attend this event, because she failed to buy bonds. But, Mayme has pity on her and lets her take her bond. After she leaves, Mayme collapses in remorse that she can’t even go to the celebration. Then, Mayme’s soldier boyfriend comes home. He has bought two bonds, so that they can still go together. The final scene is a live-action political cartoon, in which Kaiser Wilhelm II is suspended from falling into “the soup” on a thin high wire labeled “Hindenburg Line.” He tries to retreat from France to Germany, but is weighted down by various burdens, with labels like “brute force” and “clown prince.” Mayme takes out a baseball labeled “Fourth Liberty Bond” and knocks him off the wire, simulating the kinds of amusements she forsook at the beginning of the film. Then she points to the camera and suggests that, “Your’s may be the bond to knock him off his perch!”

By 1918, Mary Pickford was possibly the biggest star in the world (easily in the top five, at any rate). Her support of liberty bonds was well known, and she donated a considerable amount of her valuable (and expensive!) time to public appearances in support of them. There’s an irony to the title of this film, however, since she was in fact a Canadian citizen! Her home country had been fighting for almost four years by the time any American troops showed up, and perhaps that was the reason for her urgency in trying to get the war over as quickly as possible. Of course, she had already starred in “The Little American” and was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” so audiences probably didn’t see this as a big problem. She was an actress playing a role, and in this case that role was of a patriotic American girl who sacrifices her immediate pleasures for the sake of the war effort. Unfortunately, the concept of “100% American” would be used after the war to hound immigrants and leftists during the “Red Scare.”

Feet!

This sort of short propaganda film doesn’t show off the best in film making technique of the time, but there are some interesting bits. The reversal to Pickford after the four minute man breaks the fourth wall is particularly well executed in terms of editing, and handled very quickly, to keep the emotional verisimilitude high. There are a number of insert shots of Mayme’s fashionable shoes, perhaps to establish her as a person given to extravagance, or perhaps in the interest of titillating the male audience, as shoes and feet seem to have been a big deal since the days of “What Demoralized the Barber Shop” and “The Gay Shoe Clerk.” I found the final “cartoon” interesting as well, since it involved so many different ideas being integrated into a single image.

Director: Arthur Rosson

Camera: Hugh McClung, Glen MacWilliams

Starring: Mary Pickford, Loretta Blake, Monte Blue, Henry Bergman

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

United Snakes of America (1917)

This short propaganda film from the Ford Motor Company represents an interesting moment in American corporate history. It is also an example of the crossover between film and the newspaper “political cartoon,” in which the animation becomes part of the commentary.

The film consists of a slow reveal, in which the cartoon is drawn for us piece by piece. At first we see blocks labeled “Army” and “Navy,” to either side of the screen, and the heads of figures representing those groups are added afterwards. Then, in the center of the screen, Uncle Sam is painstakingly drawn, apparently in the midst of some conflict, but parts of him remain blank. Finally, reasons for these blanks become clear, as serpents are drawn coiled around Uncle Sam and the two military figures, filling in the areas we could not see before. These serpents are labeled with various internal enemies, including “food speculator,” “pro-German press,” “strike,” and “people’s council,” as well as (more surprisingly) “senator,” “congressman,” and “clergeman” (sic). The whole scene is labeled “The United Snakes of America (The Copper Heads).”

Parsing a dated political cartoon can be harder than we think. When this film came out, the United States was newly committed to participation in the First World War. What is mostly going on here is that Ford is identifying various groups seen to be undermining the war effort and implying that their actions are betrayals of American soldiers and the country as a whole. That’s easy enough to understand, but some of the specifics have since become obscure. The term “Copperheads” refers to a faction of Democratic congressmen who wanted to negotiate for peace with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Ford is suggesting that the current crop of un-patriotic opponents of the war are of the same ilk (the Civil War took place in the 1860s, so this is similar to someone calling their enemies “hippies” today). Some of the groups identified are familiar – people almost always blame congress when the government doesn’t act quickly enough, and since this comes from a major corporation it’s no surprise to see labor (represented as “Strike”) represented as an enemy of American strength. The “People’s Council of America for Democracy and the Terms of Peace” was a pacifist organization active during the time, and “food speculators” were commonly accused of taking advantage of food shortages in Europe to get rich at the expense of people’s suffering (“war profiteers” would soon follow, and some would accuse Ford himself of being one). The one I’m least certain about is “clergeman,” which I assume to be a misspelling of “clergymen” and would be a criticism of Christian ministers who spoke against warfare, I guess, unless it’s the name of an individual lost to time. Its position, next to “Senator” made me think that perhaps Ford was calling out a “Senator Clergeman” at first, but now I think not.

Henry Ford was of course a famous industrialist and also very politically active. He would become associated with various far-right causes, through his paper “The Dearborn Independent” and is perhaps most noted today for being directly involved in distributing and promoting the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in English. This cartoon is relatively mild compared with some of what the “Dearborn Independent” would later publish. Ironically, the Ford Foundation, founded by Henry and his son Edsel in 1936, today supports a variety of progressive cultural institutions through grants and has been accused by the John Birch Society of being part of the left-wing conspiracy that dominates the US.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 80 secs

I have not been able to locate this film for free viewing on the Internet. If you know where it is, please comment.

The Crime of Carelessness (1912)

Released by Edison three years before “Children of Eve,” this movie also exploits public interest in industrial accidents generated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Unlike that movie, it also attempts to shift the blame for such accidents away from the owners and managers, and to the workers themselves.

The movie begins by showing an on-site inspector who discovers a pile of materials blocking an emergency exit door. He points this out to the owner (Bigelow Cooper), and begins to write up a citation, but the owner apparently talks him out of it. No money changes hands, and there is plenty of open space visible on a nearby wall, so maybe he has simply promised to move the offending objects. The next scene introduces the “lovers,” Hilda (Mabel Trunnelle) and Tom (Barry O’Moore), who are workers in the plant. When they kiss, the owner and inspector discreetly turn their backs for a moment. A shot follows showing “the day’s work over,” which appears to have been inspired by the famous Lumière shortWorkers Leaving the Factory,” and then we see Hilda and Tom celebrating their engagement with Hilda’s family. The family also discreetly leaves them alone after Hilda has a chance to show off her ring.

Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

April 1917

This is a big month in US history: the month that the United States of America entered the First World War. It had been coming for some time, and the German decision to re-initiate unrestricted submarine warfare in February clinched it, but now Americans were faced with the reality of troops being sent to fight and die in France. A large percent of the population was ready for war, although there would be anti-conscription demonstrations in several large cities. More upsettingly, there was a wave of anti-immigrant paranoia targeting German Americans – including many of Jewish extraction – which resulted in verbal abuse and violence in some areas.

The headlines for this month, a century ago include:

Woodrow Wilson speaks before Congress on the breaking of diplomatic ties with Germany.

World War I

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson asks the United States Congress for a declaration of war on Germany on April 2. War is formally declared April 6.

WWI: Canadian troops win the Battle of Vimy Ridge April 9-12.

The Nivelle Offensive commences April 16.

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force begins the Second Battle of Gaza April 17. This unsuccessful frontal attack on strong Ottoman defences along with the first battle, resulted in 10,000 casualties, the dismissal of the force commander General Archibald Murray and the beginning of the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne between France, Italy and the United Kingdom to settle interests in the Middle Eastern signed April 26. This is one of many arrangements by the allied powers that will be in contradiction to Wilson’s Fourteen Points at the end of the war, and hence a sticking point in negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles.

The locomotive that returned Lenin to Russia in April 1917.

Russian Revolution

In Petrograd on April 8, 40,000 ethnic Estonians demand national autonomy within Russia.

On April 12, The Autonomous Governorate of Estonia is formed within Russia from the Governorate of Estonia and the northern part of the Governorate of Livonia.

Vladimir Lenin arrives at the Finland Station in Petrograd on April 16, having been given clearance to ride in a “sealed boxcar” by the German High Command, who are gambling that escalation of the Revolution will knock Russia out of the war and free troops from the Eastern Front for combat in France.

Vladimir Lenin’s April Theses are published on April 17. They become very influential in the following July Days and Bolshevik Revolution.

Pacifism

In St. Louis on April 7, the Socialist Party of America resolves to resist conscription and the war effort. The IWW will also oppose the war, gaining many members from the AFL, whose leader, Samuel Gompers, chooses to support the war.

American WWI propaganda poster.

Propaganda

The Committee on Public Information is founded on April 14, to promote the war effort in the United States.

Disasters

An ammunition factory explosion on April 10 in Chester, Pennsylvania kills 133.

Diplomacy

WWI: Brazil severs diplomatic relations with Germany on April 11.

Journalism

The Times and the Daily Mail (London newspapers both owned by Lord Northcliffe) print atrocity propaganda of the supposed existence of a German Corpse Factory.

Film

Several film studios, including Universal, Paramount, and the Balboa Amusement Company, responded to war news by setting up recruitment drives or actually training actors for military service.

Thomas Lincoln Tally, in a meeting in New York, co-founds the First National Exhibitors Circuit.

Teddy at the Throttle, starring Gloria Swanson, released April 15.

The Cure, starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin, released April 16

The Butcher Boy, directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle with Buster Keaton in his first screen appearance, released April 23.

Births

Valerie Hobson, actress (in “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Kind Hearts and Coronets”) born April 14.

Celeste Holm, actress (in “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “All About Eve”) born April 29.

Maya Deren, director (made “Meshes of the Afternoon” and “Ritual in Transfigured Time”) born April 29.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Alternate Title: Kitchener’s Great Army in the Battle of the Somme

This documentary of the First World War was shot in the British trenches during the outbreak of one of the War’s most crucial (and largest) battles. Despite the limitations of the technology and avoiding potentially dangerous shooting conditions, it manages to present a powerful picture of the event.

Battle of the Somme-filmThe movie is divided into five parts, which are presented as a chronological account of the battle. The first two involve preparations and troop movements, the third shows the beginning of the battle, while the fourth mostly shows wounded and prisoners returning to the British side, and the final chapter shows some of the aftermath. Soldiers are generally identified by division or unit, and no names (even that of a general addressing his troops) are given. A lot of the men look at the camera, and it’s interesting to note the looks on their faces. Occasionally, they stare blankly at the camera, but more often they seem cheerful and wave or smile. No one shows fear or anger. No gunfire or hand-to-hand combat is shown, although we do see a progression of increasingly large mortars and cannon firing at the enemy lines, and also some shots showing the explosions from a distance. Scenes depicting the men going “over the top” in chapter three are simulations, however there are some shots of what appear to be real body piles in the later parts of the movie.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Forward-facing intertitles inform us of the specifics of the scenes that follow them, often describing two or three scenes before they happen. The editing tells a story of British victory at the Somme, although by the time this reached theaters in the UK the battle was still raging more or less indecisively, and thousands were being killed on both sides. Because we never see the battle itself, we can only view events from a kind of “headquarters-eye-view,” with soldiers going out and then streams of wounded and prisoners coming back in, but a disconnect in terms of what really happens in the middle. In spite of that, this is emotionally effective propaganda, because the British are shown as brave and eager to serve, and there is a sense of camaraderie and resolution to the piece. For the most part, the War as we see it here is fought between the British and the Germans, although some Canadians are depicted in one scene.

I've seen this a hundred times.

I’ve seen this a hundred times.

It is also highly effective documentary cinema. The images in this movie are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen a documentary about World War One. There just isn’t that much other footage from the period, so certain shots from this one show up in almost everything that gets made. The footage lacks sound and color, but it shows us images of the real people, animals, and machines that fought the battle and allows us to witness military activity from a now-remote past. One thing that this footage makes obvious is the importance of horse-power in fighting at the time. Far more cannon and supplies are shown as drawn by horses than motors. We also see how many dogs were present at the front, and one especially powerful image shows a dead dog lying next to “his master” (according to the intertitle) on the battlefield. We definitely get a clear picture of the French countryside before, and its devastation after, the battle. One panorama shot of the ruined town of Mametz seems to go on forever, reminding one of later images of Hiroshima.

Formerly Main Street.

Formerly Main Street.

Director: Geoffrey Malins

Camera: Geoffrey Malins, John McDowell

Cast: Major-General Beauvoir De Lisle, unknown soldiers.

Run Time: 1 hr, 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.