'Billy and the Big Stick' is a comedy dealing with the expansionist policies of the United States in the years leading up to the First World War. As I watched this film, nearly a century after it was made, I was amazed at how extremely relevant this movie is to current United States policy and international relations. Also, this movie is hilarious!
The titular 'big stick' is figurative, referring to the African proverb made famous by Theodore Roosevelt: 'Speak softly but carry a big stick, and you will go far.' The film takes place in a Caribbean banana republic which the intertitles identify as 'Hayti'. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be the real-world nation of Haiti, or if the spelling change indicates that this Hayti is a fictional place: the Caribbean version of Graustark or Ruritania. Anyway, the president of Hayti is played by a white actor, which would seem to indicate that this is a fictional country. (The real-world Haiti being governed by French Africans.)
Billy Barlow (a briskly energetic performance by Raymond McKee) is the foreign agent for a U.S. utility company. He manages the power plant supplying electricity to Hayti, for which service his Yank employers are supposed to make a profit. But Hayti's president Poussevain has nationalised the electrical plant. He expects Billy to carry on supplying electricity to the Haytian people, but refuses to pay for it.
Billy is in love with a native maiden, Claire Ducrot. This role is played by Yona Landowska, an actress I've never heard of before. In this film, she displays an exotic beauty and a sensuous presence that make me eager to see more of her film roles. Billy wants to get the hell out of Hayti (good move) and take Claire with him (even better move), but first he's got to collect the substantial amount of money which Poussevain owes him (possibly fatal move).
By great good luck, along comes a Yankee battleship, and aboard the battleship is Harry St Clair, the handsome (and vain, and stupid) matinée idol of American films. St Clair is about to shoot a naval film, with himself in the lead, and for realism's sake the U.S. Navy have loaned him a ship, with a full crew complement and guns.
SPOILERS COMING. Billy urges St Clair to get into his costume as a U.S. naval officer, and then he brings him to the president. It's been previously established that Poussevain speaks only French, whilst St Clair speaks only English. In an hilarious climax, Billy serves as interpreter for the two, deliberately mistranslating their dialogue so as to convince Poussevain that St Clair is a genuine naval officer preparing to attack, whilst telling St Clair that Poussevain is a fan of St Clair's movies, and would like to see him perform something.
Harry St Clair is played by Bradley Barker, an actor quite unknown to me. What a discovery! He's very convincing as the foppish egotistical matinée idol, histrionically emoting for his 'fan' Poussevain while being too vain to understand what's really happening.
It's unfortunate that this movie is silent, as the climactic scene requires one character to be speaking French and another to be speaking English, whilst Billy acts as interpreter ... the catch being that Billy's translations are fake, and the audience realise this while the other characters don't catch wise. In a sound film, this could have been achieved with subtitles on screen while the actors are speaking in their own voices. But this movie is silent, so we're stuck with the unwieldy device of Poussevain's dialogue being rendered in English-language intertitles (even though he's speaking French), and then having Billy say something else entirely which is ostensibly a translation.
There are some fascinating shots of U.S. naval ships and artillery pieces. Unfortunately, it's blatantly obvious that these shots are stock footage; the lighting in these shots doesn't match the rest of the movie. And some unbilled bit players get rather heavy-handed in their depiction of ignorant foreigners.
'Billy and the Big Stick' is a well-paced comedy with a far-fetched plot that's all too plausible, and (as I write this) amazingly relevant to the politics of the early 21st century. McKee, Barker and Landowska give impressive performances, and the latter is quite sexy. Director Edward H Griffith deserves to be better known; he's in top form here. I'll rate 'Billy and the Big Stick' 9 out of 10.
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