Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Flag (1927)

The above photo is of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. Betsy wasn’t home at the time.

Flag Day is celebrated today in the US. Elementary school memories might include the ceremonial raising of the flag, a few clumsily recited poems like “In Flanders Fields” or a bored fourth grader plowing through the Gettysburg Address, and perhaps the playing of “Taps” by a trumpet player borrowed from the local high school band. That’s how it used to be. “The Flag” (1927) gives us a similar vague but earnest tableau of patriotism in the guise of the Betsy Ross story, in a way things did not really used to be.

Ross’ real place in American history as a unique figure: a successful businesswoman in the 18th century, has been buried to a great extent in the legend of her making the first flag. What we don’t know about it, Hollywood is always happy to make up.

What is interesting about this short, directed by Arthur Maude, is its being filmed in an early Technicolor process. The colors, like peach tones and light blues, are somewhat muted, but the flesh tones of the white and black actors appears natural. There’s not much story here: General George Washington, played by stone-faced Francis X. Bushman, wants a national flag, so Betsy creates one . One has the feeling that the film was little more than a test for the color process.

A (very slight) subplot involves a British officer sneaking into Betsy Ross’ house to visit his wife, who happens to be staying there as her guest. When he strips off his black cape to reveal his brilliant red uniform coat, it is quite striking. When Washington and Ross are at a party, all looking out at the blue twilight settling over a pink western sky, Ross describes her design for a flag as stars in a field of blue, one for each colony, as she gazes up at the starry sky. The bars of red are “for the blood of sacrifice” like the pink streaks of sunset, on “a ground of white for love and peace.”

It is meant to be “a flag beneath whose folds every man shall find freedom and protection.” This becomes quite literally true for the British officer, who when Ross unveils her creation (the bold red, white and blue primary colors of the large flag standing out very flashy against the muted colors of the set), and it is hung on the wall for display, he hides behind it when hunted by Continental soldiers.

Washington discovers him and grants him leniency, and as they shake hands, the blue-coated and red-coated men, they predict a future day when their nations will be “united in a common cause.” We are brought immediately to 1917 and the flags of the US, the UK and France carried by allied soldiers of World War I as they march toward the camera.

A simplistic view of foreign relations, to be sure, but Hollywood had a way of tying everything up with a ribbon. Symbolism is what Flag Day is about, anyway.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

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