Saturday, July 6, 2013

Three American Revolutionary Shorts (Warner Bros., 1936-1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before, as part of the Fourth of July programming on TCM, Charles and I had watched three Warner Bros. shorts about the American Revolution, all originally shot in three-strip Technicolor but badly faded by now. The first, Give Me Liberty! (1936), cast John Litel as Patrick Henry and Nedda Harrigan (later Mrs. Joshua Logan) as his wife, who after their friend Randolph Peyton (Theodore Osborne) is arrested by British troops, who walk into the Henry home without a warrant and take him away for singing a pro-liberty song, extracts a promise from Henry not to speak out against George III. So Henry fails to use his oratorical gifts to rouse the Virginia House of Burgesses to support the revolutionists in Boston, despite the entreaties of George Washington (Robert Warwick) and Thomas Jefferson (George Irving), until his wife takes her seat in the chamber, winks at him to let him know she’s freeing him from the promise, and he delivers the famous “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech. It’s an engaging little movie, effectively directed by action specialist B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason from a script by Forrest Barnes, but it suffers from John Litel’s limitations as an actor — surely, one wonders, they could have found, even on a shorts budget, someone more effective at playing a rhetorician!

In the next film, The Declaration of Independence (1938), Litel shifted to playing Thomas Jefferson and Charles L. Tedford wrote the screenplay for director Crane Wilbur — though the climax is an action scene of which Eason would have been proud. The rules of the Continental Congress required that each state delegation vote as a unit, and Jefferson, John Adams (Ferris Taylor), Benjamin Franklin (Walter Walker) and John Hancock (Henry Hall) want all 13 states to vote for it so it can be at least publicly unanimous. Only Delaware’s delegation is deadlocked because Caesar Rodney (Ted Osborne) is stuck in his home state — he’s dating the daughter of a Loyalist and his girlfriend’s dad is trying to get him arrested — and he has to go through a wild ride from Delaware to Philadelphia in order to cast the deciding vote for independence in time. Tedford’s script plays fast and loose with history — watching the scene in which Thomas Jefferson tries to include an anti-slavery plank in the Declaration and John Adams makes him take it out, you’d never guess that it was really Jefferson who was the slaveowner and Adams who wasn’t! — but though The Declaration of Independence may be lousy history it’s a nicely stirring piece of vest-pocket filmmaking.

The third short in the series, Sons of Liberty (1939), was quite the best, mainly because it had a “name” director (Michael Curtiz) and a “name” star (Claude Rains — three years later they’d work together again in Casablanca) as well as the most unusual story. It was basically the plot of The House of Rothschild transposed to the American Revolution: Jewish merchant and financier Haym Solomon (Claude Rains) is a close associate of Sons of Liberty founder Alexander McDougall (Donald Crisp). When the British seize New York and McDougall flees, Solomon remains behind and secretly funnels money to the revolutionaries. By 1781 the revolution is on its last legs at Yorktown and George Washington (Montagu Love) tells Solomon that only a last-minute infusion of cash can save the rebel cause. Solomon raises the money from his Jewish friends — at one point breaking up a religious service on the Sabbath, complete with cantor (after The Jazz Singer Warner Bros. had a reputation for putting cantors on screen) — and after a stirring chase scene in which the carriage containing the cash is chased by British troops but manages to outrun them long enough for revolutionary soldiers to ambush them, Washington gets the money, the U.S. wins its independence and Solomon is at peace, only he dies four years later. It’s a neatly done movie that benefits from an “A”-list star and director, and it also helps that Haym Solomon’s story isn’t as mind-numbingly familiar a piece of American historiography as Patrick Henry’s or Thomas Jefferson’s. It was also interesting to see the revolutionary government’s finance minister Robert Morris (Moroni Olsen) right after reading an argumentative column in the Los Angeles Times that argued that conservatives like him were key to winning the Revolution — it wasn’t just anti-religious rabble-rousers like Thomas Paine, who was driven out of the country and fled to revolutionary France (one could make a case for Paine as the Edward Snowden of his time!).