The Little American (1917) A Silent Film Review

Mary Pickford joins the war effort in this collaboration with director Cecil B. DeMille. One woman, two armies, oh dear. Pickford plays Angela, an American girl so patriotic that she contrived to be born on Independence Day. However, she is in favor of outsourcing her love life: her two suitors are French and German respectively. But then that pesky war starts, both men are called up to serve and Angela must choose her side. 

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Little Mary vs. the Hun

The Little American was the follow-up to the first DeMille/Pickord collaboration, the disastrous Romance of the Redwoods. I may have the benefit of hindsight but I cannot imagine why Paramount thought that DeMille and Pickford’s styles would mesh successfully. I realize that she was their biggest star and he was their biggest director but still…

DeMille went in for sleaze, exotica and more than his fair share of manhandled heroines. Pickford preferred Americana, cute comedy and she usually played independent young women out for love and self-respect. (This was 1917 and Pickford had just started in on her child roles, parts that would dominate the latter half of her career.)

Both actress and director possessed potent talent but mixing them was like putting absinthe in a strawberry milkshake.

America entered World War One on April 4, 1917. The Little American, released July 12 of that same year, is a propaganda picture meant to cheer on the public’s fighting spirit.

Mary Pickford just got a good look at the script.
Mary Pickford just got a good look at the script.

I think that a major disclaimer is called for at this point: many WWI propaganda pictures have a level of venom that is truly shocking to the modern viewer. Fed by yellow journalism, wartime hysteria and a lax motion picture code, they portrayed enemies as utter animals. I think that most classic film fans are going to be more familiar with the World War Two propaganda pictures, which were more restrained– at least by comparison.

The spiteful nature of the WWI movie industry actually caused some filmmakers to feel ashamed of themselves after the smoke had cleared. D.W. Griffith went so far as to make an entire movie about German wartime suffering, Isn’t Life Wonderful, as an apology. And his propaganda film, Hearts of the World, was not especially venomous. (He saved his real nastiness for African-Americans, as we all know.)

Subtle they ain't.
Subtle they ain’t.

My point in bringing all this out is that a modern viewer needs to be prepared for what’s coming. Many WWII films featuring the Nazis (the Nazis!) as villains would also portray some Germans as anti-Nazi spies, resistance fighters, or at least willing to aid the occasional downed airman in evading capture. No quarter was given in the most extreme World War One films. All Germans, every last one of them, are shown to be evil. No exceptions.

I know that propaganda films by their very nature portray enemies in a negative light. And every generation will produce some films that really go overboard. But when comparing movies, World War One anti-Hun films don’t just go overboard, they swan-dive over the side and sink the ship while they are at it. In fact, the tone of these films even concerned the Unites States government and President Wilson. However, these films made money. Audiences enjoyed the shock value of the extreme (and heretofore censored) violence and the escapism of blaming the world’s problems on a debased enemy.

Much mustache-twirling villainy.
Much mustache-twirling villainy.

Some propaganda films can go beyond their original purpose and be called art (such as Alexander Nevsky) or they can be so entertaining that they remain enjoyable even after the original conflict has ended (All Through the Night). Or a film may be an already good story that has propaganda elements added to appeal to a wartime audience (This Gun for Hire). All three of these films are anti-German propaganda but they are still entertaining because they are good movies, first and foremost. Notice, however, that not one of them is from the first world war.

How does The Little American measure up? Would transcend its time and message or would it be another violent, dated spectacle? Let’s take a look.

But who is the Little American of the title? I cannot guess!
But who is the Little American of the title? I cannot guess!

The tale starts with Karl von Austreim (Jack Holt) and Count Jules de Destin– of the Fighting Destins yet– (Raymond Hatton) vying for the affection of Angela (Mary Pickford). Angela is a super patriot. The billowing flag she poses in front of gives us a hint. Now, it is one thing for a film character to be patriotic (this is a propaganda picture after all) but the scenario writers take things a bit far by making this her only character trait.

Jules thinks he is doing quite well by offering Angela a red, white and blue bouquet but Karl outdoes him by getting Angela candies arranged in the shape of the American flag. The candy is topped with a tiny flag, which Angela can tuck into her top in the event that spontaneous acts of patriotism are required. Jules knows when he is beaten and withdraws from competition but not without a hint of regret.

Sorry, fella, she digs the German.
Sorry, fella, she digs the German.

Things are getting serious between Karl and Angela. (Let’s face it, Jules never really stood a chance.) Karl, who is half-American himself, plans to set up permanent residence in the U.S. in order to be with her. However, he gets a letter from Germany saying that he must report home at once. Military matters. Oh, did I mention that the year is given as 1914?

Soon it is official, Europe is at war. Jules runs into Angela and tells her that 10,000 Germans have been killed. I don’t know about the Fighting Destins but Jules certainly seems to be one of the Foot in Mouth Destins. Angela is frightened that Karl may be among the dead.

"Karl, what are you doing?" "Nothing!" "Are you committing war atrocities?" "No!"
“Karl, what are you doing?”
“Nothing!”
“Are you committing war atrocities?”
“No!”

Three months pass and no word from Karl. Angela starts to write a letter to him. And she begins it, I kid you not, with “Are you alive or dead?” Because if he is dead, he will of course write back promptly.

Anyway, a letter arrives from Angela’s aunt in France asking her to come. It was posted before the conflict began. With the double mission of helping her aunt and finding Karl, Angela sets out on the Lusi– I mean Veritania.

It's all fun and games...
It’s all fun and games…

Ocean liners of the 1910’s were awesome if you could afford first class passage. Angela is enjoying a shipboard dance. Then the Germans come. In a surprisingly powerful scene (given the rampant silliness up to this point) Angela must fight her way out of the submerged ballroom. Confetti and streamers litter the water as the panicked dancers try to escape.

Pickford later reported that she could barely swim and was freezing in her thin evening gown. Extras were injured by the splinters as they tumbled from the sinking ship. Their hard work pays off. The sinking scene is a suspenseful show-stopper.

...until someone fires a torpedo.
…until someone fires a torpedo.

The Veritania’s fate is obviously based on the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, which killed almost 2,000 people, 128 of whom were American civilians. The Germans claimed that the ship was carrying munitions and was therefore a legitimate target. The British denied this charge. It was only when divers examined the ship’s hold in 2008 that historians definitively confirmed the Lusitania was in fact carrying war materials. The civilians on board were unwittingly being used as human shields. Of course, there is no way that the makers of The Little American could know this. The sinking of the Lusitania did much to make Americans more favorable to entering the war in Europe.

(I should note that Cecil B. DeMille had at least close friend who died on the Lusitania, which partially explains the rather angry tone of this film.)

A sudden sinking feeling.
A sudden sinking feeling.

Angela’s frantic waving of her little flag does no good. She and her fellow survivors have to wait on wreckage for rescue. Meanwhile, Karl is hanging out with his fellow German officers. The Germans take time (presumably from tying old ladies to railroad tracks) to gloat about the sinking of the Veritania. Unfortunately, Karl had previously received a letter saying that Angela was on that ship. Anguish!

Angela finally makes her way to aunt’s estate in France. She discovers that her aunt has passed away. Soon, Jules shows up. He has lost an arm in the conflict so he needs Angela to give him a hand. Hee heeeee. First, he needs to set up a secret radio in the manor house so that his agent can call in German positions for shelling. Second, he wants to shelter the French wounded at the manor. The French must fall back but their wounded cannot be transported. Angela says she will stay behind with them and act as a nurse. Jules also leaves behind a French officer who will radio in the German positions. He departs, leaving Angela with the wounded men and her maids.

Angela joins the war.
Angela joins the war.

That night, the victorious German soldiers head toward the manor, mustaches a-twirling. Karl is with them and is plenty ready for a good old fashioned pillage. He now thinks Angela is dead, apparently not having bothered to check if the Veritania had any survivors.

The first of the Germans arrive at the manor. Angela meets them on the staircase waving her little flag. Because that worked so well last time. As expected,the Germans are determined to engage in melodramatic villainy and won’t let a little thing like citizenship get in the way. Angela is forced to flee.

Angela, the flag doesn't work. It has never worked. Stop waving it about and RUN.
Angela, the flag doesn’t work. It has never worked. Stop waving it about and RUN.

Karl, meanwhile, is breaking the tops off of wine bottles to drink their contents. Has this man never heard of a corkscrew?  I mean, I know that DeMille wants to portray the German solders as barbaric and all but if one’s aim is to get drunk, what is the point of opening wine in such a way that half the bottle spills? Not to mention the glass splinters. I mention this because the intertitles take great pains to remark on Germany’s “Hunnish efficiency.” How is this efficient again?

The Germans further disgrace themselves by using antique furniture to start a fire (there was a wood pile out back, guys!) and cutting oil paintings out of their frames to wrap bread. Now that’s just silly.

On a more serious note, the Germans also discover and attack Angela’s hidden maidservants. The French soldier left behind is killed by shrapnel when the door is blown in.

Well this is embarrassing.
Well this is embarrassing.

Angela is trying to hide from the Germans. Karl sees her fleeing figure and decides that even though he is in mourning for Angela this is just too good of an opportunity to pass up. It’s like the guy is collecting villain merit badges. Angela and Karl struggle together in a dark room. Just as Angela is about to take a poker to his head, the lights come on. Oops.

Angela is quite upset. Karl is on his knees sobbing for forgiveness. Um, no. Just no. Angela tells him that if he wants to be forgiven, he should save her maids. Karl says he can’t. Angela says she will go and find a man who will.

Karl feels bad. Not enough to actually DO anything but it's the thought...
Karl feels bad. Not enough to actually DO anything but it’s the thought…

Downstairs, the Germans continue their cartoonish looting. Angela gets groped by a German captain (Walter Long) but is finally able to find the man in charge. The Colonel (Hobart Bosworth) refuses to help Angela’s maids. Instead, he orders Angela to dry his boots over the fire. Angela is so upset that she ends up accidentally burning them.

Please note that in order to further dehumanize the German soldiers, none of them are given names and are instead identified by rank only. However, in the interest of clarity, I will identify the characters by the name of the actor who played them. And I consider this an utter waste of Hobart Bosworth and Walter Long’s talents, by the way.

Who, us do something? Never!
Who, us do something? Never!

Colonel Bosworth is angry with Angela for ruining his footwear. He is ready to hand her over to Captain Long when Karl claims her for himself. Karl takes Angela upstairs and locks her in a bedroom for safety. One of the surviving maids has dragged herself there as well. Karl is overcome by grief at what his army has done. He lets the maid inside with Angela and departs in despair. Amount of sympathy I feel for Karl now: 0%.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: when choosing between two men, pick the one who is not committing war crimes, okay?

So, will Karl grow a spine and stand up for Angela? Will Angela drop her Helpless Hannah routine and do something for herself? Find out (if you must) by seeing The Little American.

It's a good thing we're not married because you would SO be sleeping on the couch, Karl.
It’s a good thing we’re not married because you would SO be sleeping on the couch, Karl.

The Little American is a handsome film with impressive setpieces and moody lighting. DeMille, as always, is best at directing crowds. The sinking of the passenger liner is justly famous for its realism, spectacle and suspense. However, the flaws in DeMille’s style (which would overwhelm his good qualities when the talkies rolled around) are apparent. DeMille is great with bigger, better, higher, faster. But with wholesome girls and boys next door? Nope. More sleaze, please!

Pickford’s performance suffers under DeMille’s direction. Mary Pickford was a lively, strong-willed woman and her best roles were always along those lines. She looks beautiful but the tearful damsel-in-distress routine rings false. Do we really believe that this woman would put up with the abuse heaped on her and only weep in response? No, we do not.

This is not a meek woman!
This is not a meek woman!

The writing of Pickford’s character is also to blame. Angela is too passive; she does not act, she reacts.

Angela goes to Europe only after being asked by her aunt. She helps with the French war effort only after being asked to do so by Jules. She makes relatively little preparation to protect herself, her maids and her patients from the German invaders, naively believing her citizenship will save her even though she has had clear evidence that it will not. And she only calls in German positions for shelling after a Frenchwoman begs her to save her son. These reactions are not due to character growth, they are simply elements in the connect-the-dots plot. The movie would have been much stronger if Angela had made a few decisions without being pushed into them.

Pickford's charm is intact.
Pickford’s charm is intact.

That being said, Pickford’s natural charisma saves Angela from being a wholly irritating character. She comes off as sweet and appealing in the less melodramatic scenes.

While Pickford does what she can, Jack Holt and Raymond Hatton do not get off so easily. Holt manages some good moments, especially with Pickford, but Hatton is painful from beginning to end. Such mugging has to be seen to be believed! And both men have the unfortunate habit of making the goofiest faces when their characters are experiencing emotional anguish.

What they want to portray: They are deeply concerned for Angela’s safety and don’t know what to do.

What the audience sees: They have just been lanced in the buttocks.

That must smart!
That must smart!

Further, Karl’s lapse into villainy is never satisfactorily explained. Was he too sad about Angela’s alleged death on the Veritania to resist the lure of war-induced brutality? Was Angela the only thing keeping him nice? Or did entering the German army instantly make him miscreant?

All ribbing aside, from a historical standpoint, this film is just a little icky. Pure propaganda meant to fire up the movie-going public. Now I am not saying that every German soldier of World War One was a choirboy. I am not saying that war crimes did not exist. What I am saying is that portraying every single German as a melodrama villain who would make Snidely Whiplash blush is wrong. It is wrong from an artistic standpoint and it is wrong from a moral standpoint.

I can't have even a LITTLE rape and pillage without you getting all angry?
I can’t have even a LITTLE rape and pillage without you getting all angry?

The German characters, with the exception of Karl (who is, after all, half-American), are dehumanized so much that they may as well be Martian invaders as far as the audience is concerned. I take that back. Martians invaders are usually given a bit more character development. The “Hunnish brutality” tales were popular in the yellow press of the period, though there were vocal dissenters who objected to this style of propaganda.

The Little American is a disturbing picture from a tragic time. While the talents of both the director and the actors help to make it at least watchable, the film cannot overcome its cliched scenario and hate-filled tone. I would call it a heckle-worthy guilty pleasure if not for the relatively graphic war crime scenes and the real-life tragedy associated with WWI. As it stands, this is a movie that makes you laugh and cringe in equal turns.

Mostly cringe.
Mostly cringe.

As for measuring up against other propaganda films, The Little American cannot overcome its flaws because it does not work as a movie. The rickety script, the poor motivations for both heroes and villains, the leading man’s unexplained descent into villainy… In the end, though, The Little American fails because it is too tacky to be artistic, too pretentious to be a crowd-pleaser and too hate-filled to be enjoyed by most modern viewers.

I should also bring out that the grand finale of the film (consider yourself spoiler alerted) involves Karl publicly denouncing the Kaiser and joining Angela to face a firing squad. However, they are saved when a French mortar strike distracts the German soldiers. Karl is taken as a POW and Angela spends her days happily feeding him sandwiches through the barbed wire, the whole “war crimes” thing forgiven. Jules is able to arrange for a passport so that Angela and Karl can return to American together. Happy ending right?

A happy ending?
A happy ending?

There is actually more to the story after THE END. In The War, the West and the Wilderness, Kevin Brownlow outlines the troubles The Little American had after its release. It made money but there were problems. Pickford’s regular audience objected to the violence when it was directed at their beloved Little Mary. And then there was the little problem with Angela ending up with Karl. America’s Sweetheart kissing a Hun? Gracious, no! Not even a reformed, Kaiser-condemning, half-American one.

She has her choice of hammy lovers.
She has her choice of hammy lovers.

A substitute ending had Angela choosing Jules instead. Pickford and DeMille had failed to realize that riling up the audience against all things German for an hour would make the uniting of Karl and Angela distasteful in the extreme (in spite of his eleventh hour conversion to the American Way) to the audience.

Oh and a tidbit of ironic trivia:

Angela’s kid brother is played by Ben Alexander, who would grow up to play a supporting character in the anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Little American really got my dander up. I was practically throwing things at the screen near the end. This thing is on my worst film list for both Pickford and DeMille. It’s just horrid.

little american verdict

Where can I see it?

The Little American is available on DVD.