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American Movie: The Little American (1917)

D.W. Griffith may have invented Hollywood, but in the early days, Mary Pickford was its face. Even before it was common for actor’s names to be used in advertising, movie exhibitors drew crowds to the latest release featuring “The Girl with the Golden Curls.” One of the original founders (along with Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and future husband Douglas Fairbanks) of the United Artists studio in 1919 and of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in 1927, Pickford looms large both in front of and behind the cameras of Hollywood in its infancy.

Best known for her spunky, charming girl-next-door quality, by 1917 she was already a household name, America’s first genuine movie star. Pickford was unrivaled in fame and popularity by anyone except perhaps Charlie Chaplin. Still playing child parts, even at the age of 25, her roles that year included the young title characters in The Poor Little Rich Girl, A Little Princess and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. However, just a few months after the United States entered World War I, she also appeared in The Little American, directed by Cecil B. DeMille (another major player in the unfolding drama of Hollywood’s early history).

It features “Mary Pickford in a stirring photoplay of great patriotic appeal.” The story is about an American girl, Angela Moore (whose birthday even falls on the 4th of July), and her romantic involvement with a Frenchman, Count Jules De Destin (Raymond Hatton), and a German, Karl Von Austreim (Jack Holt), on the eve of the Great War. Both men vie heavily for her affections while visiting America, and Karl seems to have captured her attention when the two men are suddenly called home to fight each other in the trenches of France. Angela soon finds an excuse to follow them, when she learns that her aging aunt, who owns an estate in France, is dying, but while crossing the Atlantic her ship is sunk by a German U-boat which refuses to rescue the survivors.

After drifting for awhile, Angela and the few people on her raft are picked up and she arrives safely in France to find that her aunt has died and left her the estate. Of course, she is also just in time to witness the French fall back, leaving her new home full of wounded French soldiers (whom she bravely decides to stay and nurse) and behind German lines. Jules (who has lost an arm in the fighting, and is quite demanding of a neutral civilian woman) also leave a telephone hidden in her chimney and ask her to report the positions of the German guns to them. This all goes swimmingly until Karl’s unit decides to go to town on the nurses at Angela’s estate. Karl, who believes Angela died in the attack on her ship, is with them, and although he refrains from participating in the attempted debauchery once he discovers that she is still alive, he refuses to stand up to his superior officer, either.

Ultimately, it is up to Angela to be the courageous one for both of them until Karl finally grows a spine. When the Germans discover Angela’s espionage activities, they demand an explanation. “I was neutral,” she heatedly proclaims, “till I saw your soldiers destroying women and shooting old men! Then I stopped being “neutral” and became a human being!” They decide to have her shot as a spy. Karl attempts to put a stop to it, and is placed next to her as a traitor, but a well-placed shell from Jules interrupts the execution by killing the firing squad and Angela and Karl escape to safety and bliss in the confusion. The message: Not all Germans are bad, but most of them are. Actually, considering the state of the country at the time, The Little American has a surprisingly even-handed perspective.

DeMille would later be known as a master of spectacle, but in this case he is not overly-ambitious in relating what is a rather simple story. The film is quite short in comparison to Griffith’s famous early silents, but still packs in plenty of action and romance. The propagandistic elements are not subtle, by any means, but they don’t feel forced or drown out the story. It is certainly not a great, must-see film experience, but Pickford is quite good and the result is interesting as a cinematic curiosity from a time when America was shaking loose some of its old isolationism and taking a more active role
in global affairs.

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~ by Jared on August 5, 2008.

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