Saturday, August 14, 2021

Stub - Yankee Doodle in Berlin

Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919) Starring: Bothwell Browne, Ford Sterling, Malcolm St. Clair, Bert Roach Directed by F. Richard Jones. Written by Mack Sennett. Produced by Mack Sennett. USA Run time: 65 minutes. Black and White. Silent. Comedy. WWI.

Propaganda films about evil Huns were quite common from Hollywood during World War I. Titles like The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1917) and To Hell With the Kaiser (1918), gave little to the imagination about whose side the US was on during the war. While Eric Von Stroheim is best remembered as a director, during this time period he was pretty busy playing sadistic Prussian officers in films like The Unbeliever (1918), The Hun Within (1918), The Heart of Humanity (1918), and D. W. Griffith's Hearts of the World (1918).

Late to the game was Mack Sennett’s send-up, Yankee Doodle in Berlin. And by late, I mean after the war had ended. The armistice which ended World War I happened on November 11, 1918 but this film wasn’t released until March 2, 1919.

Yankee Doodle in Berlin was only the third feature from Sennett, who, known as the King of Comedy, made mostly two-reelers and his only feature to be released by Paramount Pictures. (His other two features were Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) and Mabel Normand’s comeback vehicle, Mickey (1918).) The relationship began in the summer of 1917 Adolf Zukor, the head of Paramount, sought to incorporate Mack Sennett and his company in order to expand Paramount’s slate of two-reel comedies to show alongside their features. Sennett, who was fed up with the troubled Triangle Film Corporation managed to secure his release. He brought with him his core Keystone actors and crew, though in return he had to surrender the Keystone name to Harry Aitken, the president of Triangle as part of his release.

The film is about a secret mission to send two Americans behind enemy lines to gather military secrets. However, there is a sequence near the beginning in which an Irish-American Prisoner of War (Charles Murray) chides his captors about the Irish/Allies’ success against the Germans at the Battle of Somme, an Allied offensive which took place from July to November 1916. He further aggravates them by wiping his nose on their flag. So angry does the commandant get that he orders him to be shot. He then gives him the chance to save his life by becoming German. The Irish soldier agrees to the trade and takes an oath, but that doesn’t change his thinking. He even cuts the eyes out of a portrait of the Kaiser when no one is looking. But that sequence doesn’t go anywhere.

Captain Bob White (Bothwell Browne) volunteers for a dangerous mission.

The real story starts with the Americans looking for volunteers for their dangerous mission. From the ranks, Captain Bob White (Bothwell Browne) is chosen and he and his co-pilot (uncredited) fly behind enemy lines.

German high command: The Crown Prince (Malcolm St. Clair), Kaiser Bill
(Ford Sterling), and general Von Hindenburg (Bert Roach).

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the German high command, Kaiser Bill (Ford Sterling), his son, The Crown Prince (Malcolm St. Clair), and their general Von Hindenburg (Bert Roach), not to mention the German army. The three of them come across as a World War I version of the Three Stooges. They even take the news of retreat and withdrawals as showing they’re outwitting the Allies, rather than losing the war.

Even the Kaiser is unimpressed with his own soldiers. After meeting supposed heroes, he remarks:

Kaiser Bill: I see room for improvement.

Von Hindenburg: Your Majesty! These men stormed and captured a convent in Belgium.

Kaiser Bill: If they're soldiers, I'm an acrobat!

A Daughter of Belgium (Marie Prevost)

We also see the forced laborers, which include A Daughter of Belgium (Marie Prevost), working in the fields for the Germans. When she collapses after doing hard labor, the Belgian girl is whipped.

Later, Bill lands the plane behind enemy lines. After camouflaging the plane, the co-pilot goes out setting up a wireless transmitter. Bill shaves off this mustache and remembering his college plays, per the title card, he dresses up like a woman.

In order to avoid capture, Bill dresses as a woman.

He is convincing enough that every man, from the foot soldier on up, wants him. But before he makes his climb up the ladder of German command, he rescues the Belgian girl and dresses her up like a German soldier. She takes a message to the co-pilot and both wait for Bill to make his play.

Bill attracts the attentions of Von Hindenburg, the Crown Prince and even the Kaiser, despite his wife, The Kaiserin (Eva Thatcher), being with him at the time. Bill is given a room and is visited by the Kaiser, who tries to seduce him.

At dinner, Bill, in drag, does what's described as an "Oriental Dance."

Later, at a dinner, Bill does what’s described as an “Oriental Dance” to amuse the men, all of whom follow him to his room. When they’re alone, the Kaiser, who has a tendency to brag, shows Bill his battle plans. Using chloroform, Bill knocks him out. He then goes out to the balcony, where he transmits the plans, via hand signals to his co-pilot who then radios them into headquarters. As a result, the US Army advances and is defeating the Germans handily.

Germans being chased by a U.S. missile.

Later, the Crown Prince complains to his mother about his father and she catches the Kaiser in Bill’s room and in bed with him. Bill is revealed not to be a woman after all.

Bill's disguise is revealed.

In order to escape, Bill climbs to the roof where the co-pilot, with the Belgian girl’s help, uses a rope to pull him away to safety.

One of the ads for Yankee Doodle in Berlin, featuring appearances by Sennett's Bathing Beauties.

Despite being released after Armistice, the film was popular, thanks in large part to how it was distributed. Sol Lesser, who purchased the exclusive rights to the film for the United States and Canada, marketed the film as a roadshow, with several traveling companies, each carrying a troupe of the well-known Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties to perform before and after each screening in major cities. There was even a tie-in song entitled "Yankee Doodle in Berlin" that was also sold as sheet music.

The film would be eventually cut down to two reels and re-released as The Kaiser's Last Squeal. Ultimately, Yankee Doodle in Berlin would gross about $125,000. While profitable, it is thought if it had come out before the war was over it might have done much better.

Bothwell Browne, who was a professional female impersonator, would also make personal appearances in support of the film’s release, doing the Oriental Dance with Sennett’s Bathing Beauties as back up. This would be Browne’s only film. The Danish-born actor, while working up a Vaudeville act, had became one of the top female impersonators in his day, competing with the better-known Julian Eltinge. Working against Browne was that audiences and theater managers were unsettled by his more seductive act.

Interestingly, Eltinge would also appear in a film about the same time, Over the Rhine (1920), getting top-billing over Rudolph Valentino and Virginia Rappe.

Shortly after making the film, Browne would retire from performing and to teach dance in San Francisco. While he’s good, the fact that he didn’t make more films isn’t really surprising.

Sennett made the film as a comedy and even a parody of the propaganda films made during World War I. The sequence with Prevost being used as slave labor and being mistreated by German soldiers, I’ve read, would have been recognized by audiences at the time as a playful spoof on Griffith's Hearts of the World.

The film is full of pratfalls and slapstick humor but after you’ve seen Von Hindenburg accidentally hit or kick the Kaiser more than once, the freshness isn’t there. What might be somewhat disturbing to modern audiences is when the Kaiser hauls off and punches his wife.

Despite the presence of many of Sennett’s stalwarts, like Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin, and Malcolm St. Clair, the comedy hasn’t aged well. I don’t recall laughing once while watching. I think it has as much to do with the gags being well-trodden as much as the gags themselves. What might have had audiences laughing in 1919 isn't that funny anymore.

No comments:

Post a Comment