The Americano (1916)

Film Review

THE AMERICANO

Release Date: 24 December 1916

Studio: Fine Arts Film Company

Director: John Emerson

Actors: Douglas Fairbanks, Spottiswoode Aitken, Alma Rubens, Carl Stockdale, Tote Du Crow, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson

Writers: scenario, John Emerson, Anita Loos; from a novel by Eugene P. Lyle, Blaze Derringer (1910)

Cinematographer: Victor Fleming

Synopsis

Hernando de Valdez (Aitken) is the popular Presidente of Paragonia, a small Latin American republic. Alberto de Castilla (Du Crow), Premier of Paragonia, is his main advisor. Castilla travels to the United States to seek a mining engineer to supervise operations of his country's mines. Traveling with Castilla are his wife and Valdez's pretty daughter, Juana (Rubens). In New York, Blaze Derringer (Fairbanks) declines the job until he sees Juana and, quickly changing his mind, decides to accept it. Castilla receives an urgent message from Paragonia, and he and his party take the first boat home. Blaze follows on the next boat.

Blaze arrives to find the offices of his mining company looted by the soldiers of a usurper, General Salsa Espada (Stockdale). Only a single employee, a very frightened black man, remains. Espied intends to run the mines himself, keeping the profits.

Blaze learns that Presidente Valdez, overthrown, has been imprisoned. Espada intends to marry Juana to his henchman, Colonel Gargaras (Stevens), the newly appointed commander of the Paragonian army.

Valdez gets a note to Castilla revealing where he is being held. Castilla, disguised, contacts Blaze. They plan to save Valdez and Juana and put an end to the reign of General Espada.

General Espada, unable to operate the mines, seizes Blaze and threatens to kill him if he does not cooperate. Espada bribes Blaze, with money stolen from the army payrolls, to open the mines. Espada wants to placate the people who are angry over the loss of their livelihoods. Blaze pretends to accept the arrangement.

Blaze and Castilla release Valdez and rush to the presidential palace where the populace is calling for the Americano who will open the mines. General Espada, Colonel Gargaras and Juana are on the balcony of the palace; the marriage of Juana and Colonel Gargaras imminent. Blaze, Valdez and Castilla arrive just in time. Blaze runs ahead, assures the people that he will open the mine, and, in a short and decisive action, knocks out the General and the Colonel. Valdez proclaims the end of the revolt.

Soon thereafter, Juana marries the new commander of the Paragonian army, the very happy Blaze.

Discussion

The plot and incidents in The Americano are tailored to highlight the personality and athleticism of Fairbanks, showcasing him as the breezy, positive-thinking, athletic, young American. Everything that Fairbanks does is with a grin and great verve. Doug's expansive, captivating smile is emphasized by frequent close-ups. His athleticism, as famous as his smile, is showcased in leaping over walls, climbing up and sliding down trees, and battering his enemies.

Fairbanks was a unique film personality, larger-than-life on the screen, projecting great vitality, enthusiasm, and lightheartedness. He made his first film in 1915 and soon became a major star, highly favored by the filmgoing public.

Released in December 1916, The Americano was the twelfth and final film Fairbanks made for the Fine Arts Film Co with which he had signed in 1915. By 1917, Fairbanks wanted to control the production of his films. He separated from Fine Arts and founded his own studio, Douglas Fairbanks Pictures.

The leading lady of a Fairbanks film provides a pretty face to attract his attention. He flirts with her, and she responds gracefully and modestly. Young, demure, and appreciative of the fine qualities of Fairbanks, she generally lacks a distinctive personality. Alma Rubens' acting is mostly confined to shyly responding to Fairbanks and looking frightened by the attentions of Stevens (as her unwanted fiancee, Colonel Gargaras). Rubens (19 years old) appeared in four of the films Fairbanks made for Fine Arts.

Charles Stevens, who appeared in most of Fairbanks' silents starting with his first, The Lamb (1915), often had small roles as one of the villains. Colonel Gargaras is one of his more prominent parts. Short, thin and athletic, Stevens can be seen leaping on and off horses, balconies, trees, and similar objects in many Fairbanks films. In The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926), he played about six roles, changing his make-up for each one.

Stevens had a nearly 50 year career. His first role was in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and his final in The Outsider (1961). He usually played Native Americans (his obituary states that he was the grandson of Apache warrior Geronimo), but also Latinos. He appeared in A-level and B-level films, and extensively on television. Often uncredited, Stevens usually had a small role and can be glimpsed in the background of many films. He has a brief, but prominent, role as the drunken Indian Charley, subdued by Wyatt Earp at the beginning of Frontier Marshall (1939) and its remake, My Darling Clementine (1946).

John Emerson and Anita Loos met in the early teens. They worked with Fairbanks on several of his Fine Arts productions (1916) and continued with him for several films at Douglas Fairbanks Pictures (1917). They married in 1919 and continued their partnership until Emerson's retirement (1937).

Emerson began his career on Broadway as an actor and stage manager (1904-1915). By 1914, he was writing and directing for the movies. He directed and wrote three Fairbanks films at Fine Arts and four more for Fairbanks' own company. Emerson continued directing movies until 1922, and writing and producing until the early 1930s. He was active on Broadway during the twenties and early thirties, producing, staging, and writing, with Loos, several plays (including The Whole Town’s Talking (1923-1924) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926-1927)). He served as President of the Actors Equity Association (1920-1928) during a time when the labor union was pressing for agreements on working standards for actors and managers. From 1932-1935, he was a writer and producer at MGM. His career ended in 1937 when mental illness forced his retirement to a sanitarium where he lived the remainder of his life.

Anita Loos, born to be a writer, began writing at an early age and during a long life produced numerous film stories, plays, and books. She entered films in 1911 (21 years old) when she sold a story to the Biograph Company. Her second story, The New York Hat (1912), was directed by D.W. Griffith and starred Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore. She was a screenwriter more or less continuously until 1942, working on nearly one hundred forty films, many starring leading actresses such as Constance Talmadge, Marion Davies, Jeanette MacDonald, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford. She was also a playwright and author. Her first Broadway play, The Whole Town's Talking, was produced in 1923. She wrote novels, reminiscences about Hollywood, and an autobiography. Loos' best known work, from which she gained lasting celebrity, was the comic novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), a spoof romance. The novel was adapted into a play, a musical comedy, and two films.

She wrote six films for Fairbanks at Fine Arts (1916) and four for his own company (1917). For Fairbanks, her specialty was the humorous intertitle, adding witty comments to the comic events on-screen. Loos is generally credited with raising the intertitle to an art form.

An unfortunate element of The Americano is the presence of a stereotypical black man, an example of the casual racism of the time. This character, Hartod Armitage White (even his name is a joke), aka Whitey, is first seen hiding from the soldiers who have wrecked the office of Blaze's American mining company. His cowardice, servile demeanor, shuffling walk, and speech pattern (as written in the subtitles) are all part of the stereotype. Also typical of the time, Whitey is played by a white man (Tom Wilson) in blackface. The impersonation is obvious, another accepted element of public portrayals of African Americans. White audiences thought a white actor could portray a "typical negro" as effectively as an African American could; perhaps the impersonation increased the "comic" aspects of the expected behaviors of a black character. The racism of white Americans was upheld by the stereotyped black characters seen on the screen until after WWII, when films mostly dropped the stereotypes and began to portray African Americans as real people.

Through the 1920s, Tom Wilson (1880-1965) specialized in blackface characters. In his third film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), he plays a black servant. The names of some of these characters, George Washington Brown or Thomas Jefferson White, are further aspects of the racist stereotype. Wilson had dropped blackface by 1930; his career continued, mostly in uncredited bit parts, into his old age.

Related Articles

Read our review of The Half-Breed (1916), an unusual Fairbanks film in which he plays a scorned half-breed. This one is the most serious film he made at Fine Arts.

References

The Americano. Film Review. Jolo. Variety. December 29, 1916

Charles Stevens. Obituary. Variety. June 16, 1964

Anita Loos Dead at 93; Screenwriter, Novelist. Alden Whitman. The New York Times. August 19, 1981