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Monday, March 12, 2018

THE LITTLE AMERICAN (1917)

With her weekly salary reaching $10,000/wk, Paramount was troubled by Mary Pickford’s increasing independence. POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL/’17, with personally chosen scenarist Frances Marion, was due out, and company execs unhappy with it.* But who might take control? So, on orders from production chief Adolph Zukor, it was off to California and top director Cecil B. DeMille. A generally unhappy, if successful meeting of two headstrong bosses, first for the Western ROMANCE OF THE REDWOODS/’17, then this eye-opening look at German war atrocities as America’s Sweetheart grows from naiveté to resolve witnessing German brutality. After inheriting an estate in France, Mary, clinging to American neutrality as well as her friendship with French officer Raymond Hatton and a fiancé in his German adversary Jack Holt, barely survives the trip over when her ship (the Lusitania in all but name) is sunk by a German U-Boat. Eventually, her estate overrun by German beasts, she’s caught aiding the French as a spy only to be briefly saved by Holt who comes round in the nick of time to denounce his superiors. But with most of the villagers & her staff already shot by German firing squads, can anything save Mary & Jack from being the next victims? Blunt & often contrived, yet somehow not ridiculous, DeMille, in good form, forcefully stages atrocities while Mary finds whatever subtle acting moments she can amid the melodrama. If only we could properly see it all! Perhaps better prints will come to DVD.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The execs needn’t have worried. RICH GIRL was a big hit, and scenarist Marion went on to write many Pickford classics during Pickford’s moves from Paramount/ArtCraft to First National before co-founding United Artists with Charles Chaplin & husband-to-be Douglas Fairbanks. STELLA MARIS/’18, with Mary’s startling double-act, is usually considered the top Pickford/Marion collaboration, but AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY/’18 is equally fine, both well directed by Marshall Neilan, the latter exceptionally so.

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