Betsy Ross (1917) A Silent Film Review

General George Washington needs a flag and only the best seamstress will do! Someone like… that Betsy Ross over there! A rather silly biopic that takes enormous liberties with an already exaggerated life.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

With the Girls be Handy

Civil wars and revolutions have been popular film subjects since the beginning. Who can resist a good Bastille storming scene or weep at the tragic betrayal of an Irish revolutionary? The stories practically write themselves.

Short on cinematic brilliance.

There is one exception, though. The American Revolution is shockingly low on good films. There are many possible reasons for this, the most likely of which being the thorny hedge of jingoistic mythology that has grown up around the central figures. There are more complicated reasons, of course, but the situation is so dire that I have invented the Bunker Hill Bunny Test. Basically, an American Revolution film just has to be more entertaining and informative than a Looney Tunes short about Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Precious few pass.

Betsy Ross was made by the World Film Company, one of the last holdouts in America’s east coast film capital of Fort Lee, New Jersey. They had already touched on revolutionary subjects with The Heart of a Hero, a not-entirely-awful biopic of Nathan Hale.

Mythologize this!

Hale had been a spy, of course, and why he has been mythologized, the film stayed fairly close to the facts. Betsy Ross, on the other hand, went fully into the mythology surrounding its heroine and then added a generous spackling of melodrama and movie magic.

If you’re not familiar with American history, Betsy Ross is credited with sewing and sometimes inventing the original flag of the United States. The film opens with a montage of the various flags in use at the time and explaining where they were deployed.

The opening flag parade.

However, Ross’s reputation seems to be almost entirely a nineteenth-century invention and many of the facts are merely family legends taken at face value. In fact, Ross was one of many flag makers. After all, when you are deploying new colors for your army, you need a lot of flags and hand-sewing limited production. Further, graphic design was a thing back then and Congressman Francis Hopkinson is generally credited with designing the flag with an invoice for design services to prove it.

However, Betsy Ross was an interesting figure in her own right, once you chip away the gingerbread. Twice widowed by the war, she held her business and family together and won government flag-making contracts. An astute businesswoman and talented seamstress and upholsterer, she seems ripe for an honest biopic.

John Ross sticks around just long enough to Ross Betsy.

Needless to say, we don’t get one here. Alice Brady, future Academy Award-winning character actress, was in her salad days as a leading lady and plays Betsy as a flirtatious Quaker who wants to marry her hot American lover, Joseph Ashburn (John Bowers). Her strict father wants her to marry fellow Quaker John Ross and then there’s a kind of quadruple-cross where Joseph thinks he’s killed a guy and then the guy thinks he’s killed another guy and then there’s blackmail and everyone goes into hiding. It was all quite confusing but the long and the short is that Betsy marries John and is almost immediately widowed.

(In fact, John Ross was not a Quaker and Betsy left the religion to marry him. They started an upholstery business together and he died in 1775. I told you real life was more interesting.)

Creepy? Moi?

Betsy sets up a frippery shop with a giant oil portrait of George Washington in the entryway because she is such a fan. (Highly unlikely, given the cost of oil paintings.) After a “funny” scene in which two small Black children fight and a few unredacted slurs are thrown about, we get to the main business. George Washington (George MacQuarrie) shows up and declares that she must make the flag he has visualized. (In this vision of 1776 America, oil paintings are cheap as chips but graphic designers do not exist, apparently.)

Further, Washington leaves behind a bodyguard, Joseph, who dumped Betsy because of the murder plot, mumble mumble mumble. Also, there is a deserter who may be a spy and a pregnancy and everything is all terribly hush-hush.

Awkwardness between Betsy and Joseph.

Spoiler: The film progresses along the typical lines of a melodrama with Joseph thinking there is a spy in the house, Washington accusing Joseph of being unreliable, Betsy confessing all and turning in the spy, discovering the spy is innocent, begging Washington for a pardon, Washington being all “We’re probably too late, stinks to be him,” and then Betsy racing to rescue the innocent spy. It’s a lot.

Okay, so this movie is in no danger of displacing Bunker Hill Bunny as the best 1776 film. The movieland inventions hinder rather than help the plot and for being as naively nationalistic as it is, it kind of portrays Washington as an incompetent buffoon. He tries to arrest the wrong guy, then arrests a different wrong guy and then doesn’t seem to care much that an innocent man is about to be shot.

Further, Betsy’s fangirling comes off as weird and anachronistic. At one point in the film, she delivers the cringe-worthy line “I, too, can never tell a lie” and I felt secondhand embarrassment through the century since this picture was released.

There is also very little emotional payoff. For example, the accused spy was actually turned in by his own mother, who did not realize what was really happening and just wanted to strike out at Betsy. This could have made for some very good melodrama but the thread just drops. Also, Betsy is married to John Ross exactly long enough to get his surname and then he is quickly dispatched. Again, no emotional payoff. Even if Betsy didn’t love him, couldn’t they have given her something to do with that moment?

Finally, the picture falls victim to its own mythology. The scene in which Washington describes his vision for the flag in multiple purple title cards is simply dreadful and doesn’t even get the reasoning behind the design right. (Thirteen colonies, thirteen stars, this is grade school stuff.) This is particularly notable after the rather dry series of flags discussed in the opening scene.

Betsy Ross isn’t a very good film. It’s choppy, illogical and its historical liberties do not result in any cinematic fun. It positions itself as educational but is pretty useless in that regard, unless you count the east coast location scenery. This is one you can safely skip unless you study portrayals of American history on the screen or are a fan of the leads.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD by Grapevine.

☙❦❧

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4 Comments

  1. Carl Johnson

    That’s just . . . wow. Since Parson Weems hadn’t made up the ridiculous cherry tree story until after Washington’s death, it does seem odd that Betsy the flirty Quaker would have known about it.

    I like your Bunker Hill Bunny Test, though. Mine in a similar vein would be Stan Freberg’s “United States of America” volumes 1 and 2. And his version of the Betsy Ross story gave us the brilliant song, “Everybody Wants to be an Art Director:”

    “Everybody wants to be an art director/
    Everybody wants to call the shots
    Everybody wants to be a flag dissector /
    Changing all my stars to polka dots ….”

  2. Steven Rowe

    Thanks for the review. Too bad, although I suspect that this may be as good a film as Betsy Ross can get, as one can’t appeal to both those who want fact and those who want legend.
    I wonder if the trouble that the 1917 film Spirit of ’76 ran into made folks less likely to make American Revolution films? Spirit of 76 had the British as very nasty folks, but unfortunately for the filmmakers, the British were then allies with us against the Germans. It was much easier to make movies with Germans as the very nasty folks instead.

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