Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

100% American (1918)

August, 2015

Paramount, 1918. Director: Arthur Rosson. Camera: Hugh McClung, Glen MacWilliams. Cast: Mary Pickford, Loretta Blake, Monte Blue, Henry Bergman, Ted Reed.
            One of the fascinating things about film history is that it never travels in a straight line; there are always intriguing little nooks and crannies to explore. Major upheavals in world events—such as, oh, say, a world war—create special circumstances that are felt throughout every level of society, and inevitably the ripples show up in the movies. During World War I, one especially interesting ripple was a group of short subjects supporting the Liberty Loan. Following America’s entry into the war in 1917, American citizens were encouraged by the government to buy special bonds to help support the war effort. Hollywood gave its wholehearted support to this campaign. Among other things, some of the top stars in the movies appeared in specially produced short subjects, exhorting audiences to buy bonds. By far the best-known of these shorts is Chaplin’s The Bond, produced in August 1918, which is widely available for viewing today. But there were literally dozens of others, featuring everyone from William S. Hart to Charles Ray to Lillian Gish to Roscoe Arbuckle.
            It was probably a foregone conclusion that Mary Pickford would produce a short for this campaign. Not only had she enthusiastically supported the war effort from the start, she was also recognized in 1918 as the top star in the business (and, of course, remains today one of the most important movie stars of all time), and wielded great influence in American culture.
            Her contribution to the cause was 100% American, an engaging one-reel short, which today offers a sidelight on World War I history, as well as a charming footnote to Pickford’s career. Like other Liberty Loan shorts, it has a casual, improvised look. Mary plays a character called Mayme—but thanks to the impromptu feeling of the film, we feel we’re spending a few minutes with Mary herself, “acting” only as much as necessary to make her patriotic point. At the end, when she drops her act and addresses the camera directly, there’s little appreciable difference. Pickford’s nuanced performances in her bona fide acting roles have earned her a lasting place in film history, but as a side dish, these seemingly spontaneous moments with the lady herself are an enjoyable treat.
            The story of 100% American is simplicity itself: Mayme makes small sacrifices for the war effort, giving up little everyday luxuries in order to save her money and buy war bonds instead. In order to sustain a full reel with this slight premise, the filmmakers flesh it out with appealing little human touches. When Mayme’s friend orders an ice cream sundae and she reluctantly settles for a glass of water instead, she notices a trickle of ice cream running down the outside of her friend’s dish, surreptitiously catches it with her finger, and samples it for herself. Waiting in line to buy her long-promised war bond, Mayme suddenly realizes that she can’t find the money she saved for the occasion, and assumes that an annoying stranger in the line behind her has stolen it. Only when a policeman has responded to her outcry and is hauling the offender away does she realize, with some embarrassment, that she has merely misplaced the cash, and the man is innocent.
            This film, like Chaplin’s The Bond, concludes with a sort of live-action political cartoon. A none-too-subtly caricatured Kaiser Wilhelm tries to retreat to Germany, making his way across a precarious "Hindenburg Line" tightrope while laden with burdens representing "Atrocities", "Militarism", and so forth. Mary takes aim with a baseball (what could be more American than that?) representing Liberty Loan bonds, lets fly, and knocks him off the tightrope, then turns to the camera and cheerfully challenges the audience to do the same. The overall effect of the film is thoroughly charming. For silent-film enthusiasts, it offers an added bonus in the form of familiar cast members. Henry Bergman, a fixture in Chaplin’s stock company during this same period, appears in the opening scenes as a portly gentleman who is unaware that he’s standing on Mary’s foot, and who, alerted to his transgression, apologizes profusely and tries to make amends. Monte Blue, who had already appeared in several Pickford and Fairbanks features and who would become even better known in later Griffith and Lubitsch films, is the soldier sweetheart who returns from the war to Mary’s side at film’s end, his tall, angular frame a striking contrast to her diminutive stature.
            Unlike many of the other Liberty Loan shorts, 100% American was never a lost film, thanks to Pickford’s foresight in preserving her own film legacy. (Pickford authority Christel Schmidt, in her highly recommended book Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, has documented Pickford’s pioneering role in the archival film-preservation movement.) But preservation and access are two different things, and many of us got our first look at 100% American only when the National Film Preservation Foundation included it in one of their essential DVD collections. We can thank them for restoring to our view an evocative historical souvenir of civilian life during World War I—which also happens to be a delightful movie.

J.B. Kaufman