This post is part of Classic Movies’ Mary Pickford Blogathon, which is rolling right now.
It’s important to know, before you slip a copy of this movie into your DVD player, or even read this post, that The Little American was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Knowing this makes The Little American a more fulfilling viewing experience. It explains things.
DeMille’s sort of a controversial figure in film history. He’s remembered as a director who put the public’s appetites ahead of its need for art—giving them what they wanted in the form of splashy, often hugely expensive films that were thin on insight. He directed a silent film about Joan of Arc (no, not that one); he made two versions of The Ten Commandments and the humbly titled Greatest Show on Earth (considered by some to be the weakest-ever Best Picture winner, though it’s not even close). When he died in 1959, DeMille was planning a movie about space travel.
I wish he’d lived to make that one. It would have told us nothing about space, but an awful lot about what people hoped to find there.
DeMille had a gift for recognizing the public’s desires and delivering a product that met them. Yet The Little American seems not to be an example of this. It seems, instead, an attempt to change the public’s collective mind—a tool designed to steel Americans’ resolve for a bloody conflict their country had just joined.
The Little American was released less than five months after the U.S. entered the First World War. It stars Mary Pickford, then the absolute living embodiment of gutsy, fresh-faced American girlhood, as Angela Moore, a character who embodies the same qualities. By imperiling this character—at the hands of the Germans, upon whom the U.S. had declared war—DeMille made a far-off conflict seem more personal.
Is The Little American a good film? Not really. This is a case where nuance and depth were not only absent, but, we suspect, actively discouraged. Pickford, a genius who spent most of her career elevating insipid material, is on auto-pilot here, and with good reason—it is vitally important that she be the very Mary Pickford audiences knew so well, so that those watching her might fear for her as one of their own.
Pickford’s Angela is an American heiress born on the Fourth of July. She’s a patriot; enough that her suitors, the Frenchman, Count Jules De Destin (Raymond Hatton), and the half-American, half-German Karl Von Austreim (Jack Holt), must ply her with red, white, and blue gifts. She favors the German, but he is called to war. Despite her best efforts, Angela is unable to maintain contact with him as hostilities rise overseas.
The following year, Angela finds herself onboard a ship bound for France. She’s unconcerned about sailing into a warzone—she is, after all, an American citizen, and America remains a neutral power. Her ship, the Veritania (based on the real-life Lusitania) is soon torpedoed and sunk.
The image of the ship’s ballroom, lurching violently, spilling Angela and other passengers into the rising waters, is perhaps the film’s best; in part because Pickford momentarily disappears into the crowd. But DeMille’s real interest is the image that follows it: the star, standing drenched but defiant on a floating piece of her drowned vessel, waving her stars-and-stripes handkerchief in the air and calling out these words to the German U-Boat captain staring down at her: “You’ve fired on American women and children!”
Angela can’t believe that her citizenship affords her no protection. But this lesson will be hammered into her—and us—for the next forty minutes or so.
In time she’ll make it to France, and to a dead relative’s mansion, now overrun by German soldiers. The soldiers “attack” the female servants of the household (we understand clearly what that word means) and shoot several local villagers. Angela is spared these fates, thanks to her past with the now-very conflicted German soldier, Karl. All she loses is her naïvete.
I can’t imagine what effect the image of Mary Pickford being raped—or even the implication of it—would have had on an audience in 1917. It was probably hard enough for them to watch Angela Moore forced to her knees to scrub the muddy boots of a German general. This is all raw propaganda, with no hint of humanity displayed by any German character aside from Karl (who is, we’re told clearly, American on his mother’s side.) These elements of the film do work, though. The Little American is visceral and dark; punctuated by humor, but only momentarily, as befits its subject and more importantly, its greater purpose.
But still, it’s a DeMille film. And watching a DeMille film isn’t supposed to be like going to the library, or to church; it’s supposed to be like going to an amusement park.
Which explains the survival of Angela’s silly romance through increasingly grim and trust-destroying circumstances. And the scene of a church-bombing—heavy-handed even by the director’s standards—that sees the house of worship disintegrated but for its shining statue of the crucified Christ. And the ending: so tidy and pat that it undercuts much of what the film’s dead-serious moments created. Oh, and one other thing, which isn’t bad at all:
The hottest looking Mary Pickford I’ve ever seen.
If you know her work well, you’ll be struck by this. Pickford was 25 in 1917—in her physical prime, and of course, beautiful. But in this film, unlike so many others, she’s not playing a kid, a tomboy, or an over-buttoned, proper lady. Here she’s a little unkempt; a little sweaty; furtive, willful and passionate. There’s an undeclared but clearly visible eroticism to Angela Moore.
So maybe, in one sense, this is not a typical Pickford role at all.
Only DeMille would drop a spiced-up version of America’s Sweetheart into the middle of a propaganda film about war. It turned out to be my favorite part of The Little American.
Where to find The Little American:
The Little American is available on DVD through Televista. A warning about this disc: it includes some of the worst music I’ve ever heard accompany a silent film. I muted these tunes more than once, and you should do the same.