Sunday, February 17, 2013

Silent Sundays: Johanna Enlists (1918)



“Oh Lordy- when I prayed for a man- WHY did you send me a thousand?”

            Every year I go back to my high school history teacher’s class to give a presentation on the Imperial War Museum in London. I went to the Museum three years ago (goodness it feel like yesterday!) and ever since then I have gone back to my history teacher’s class. I have a good time teaching the kids, through my photographs of the museum, the different aspects of both World Wars (I go usually in the winter for WWI and then in the spring for WWII). When is started giving this talk three years ago I was not into classic films and the history of Hollywood as I was now (and I was not a very good teacher I was quite dull and not that interactive. I guess my museum education classes have been coming in handy after all) I had no idea that there were propaganda films during WWI. I thought if I did not know this for the longest time neither would have classes of sixteen to eighteen year olds so I thought it would be cool as an aside for my picture of film and photograph camera to tell them about a few films from that era.
            I remembered reading in a Mary Pickford biography that she had made two films dealing with The Great War- The Little American and Johanna Enlists. I put the posters of these two films on my PowerPoint and gave the little tidbit that although Mary Pickford was “America’s Sweetheart” she was actually from Canada. I cannot remember what made me choose Johanna Enlists over The Little American but I am so happy I did because Johanna Enlists is hysterical.
            Johanna Renssaller (Pickford) is a young girl coming of age on a farm out in the middle of nowhere. There are no young men her age for miles. She flirts with the married handyman much to her family’s disliking and her father chases him away with a shot gun. Her life is a dull farm life getting up every day at 6am and doing back breaking work until dusk. At night she prays for a beau to come and break the monotony of her life and to take her away from the farm.
            The following day Johanna’s wish for a beau comes true- in the form of a thousand man army regiment! The regiment is on their way to head to the front until they get orders to stay put for a while. Johanna is thrilled that all these men will be around to flirt with and pay attention to her. She starts to read beauty magazines to make herself look pretty and even tries to educate herself by trying to dance like a muse she sees in a book.
            Johanna gets much more flirting and attention than she bargained for. A Lieutenant named Frank LeRoy and a High Private named Vibbard vigorously vie for Johanna’s attention. This fight for her attention leads Vibbard to almost being Court Martialed.
            From beginning to end I was laughing so hard at this film. The title cards are so hilarious. Since Johanna and her family are supposed to be uneducated so everything is spelled wrong or used in the wrong context. I was dying with the way college was spelled- “collitch”- and the way education was spelled- “ejjicatun”. The title cards were fabulously dry and sarcastic almost to a point of being cruel but you cannot help but laugh every time they come up.            
            Mary Pickford was a riot. I can see why audiences loved her she did anything to get a laugh and was totally believable as this young girl doing all she could to get a beau (Pickford was young at the time she was twenty-five). I was dying laughing at the park where Johanna tries dancing like a muse. Her father comes out and calls for the mother and they think Johanna has come down with a case of the fits. The father gets a bucket and throws water on her while she is rolling around on the ground!
            Johanna Enlists despite being outrageously funny is really interesting to watch for its use of an actual regiment. At the end a title card lets you know that the soldiers were all actual members of the 143 Field Artillery Regiment and that Mary Pickford was their Godmother and Honorary Colonel. So not only do I get to tell my teacher’s classes how this is a good example of a propaganda piece from World War I, I also get to them this is a lot of fun to watch. If you want to have a good time laughing at a silly old film with some of the best title cards you will ever see watch Johanna Enlists. As of right now it is available to watch on YouTube.