The kid would kick the Kaiser, but he wouldn't eat the meat!
I saw this intriguing propaganda film in October 2007 at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone; the annual festival has made a welcome return to that town after eight years in nearby Sacile ... a town no less beautiful, but in Sacile the festival's programme was split between two smaller cinemas at opposite ends of the town, thus forcing me (and other attendees) to hustle back and forth from one screening to another.
'Bud's Recruit' was shot in monochrome, but at least one tinted release print exists; that print, in the UCLA archive, was recently restored: an acetate print was made on colour stock, attempting to match the tinting of the UCLA print. The acetate print was screened at Pordenone; I found the colours unpleasant and unnatural, and I suspect that this was a problem with the original tinting, rather than a failure on the part of the modern restoration effort. I would rather have seen this film in monochrome.
'Bud's Recruit' has an intriguing genesis. Judge Willis Brown, a former justice of the Utah juvenile court (and apparently still entitled to style himself 'judge'), attempted to found a network of 'Boy Cities' (similar to the later and more successful Boys' Town) for orphans, runaways, juvenile offenders and wayward youth, offering them guidance and education as well as shelter. As part of that scheme, Brown established a Boy City in Culver City (later the site of MGM) and set up a low-budget movie studio there: the Boy City Film Company. As head of this endeavour, Brown wrote and produced a series of two-reelers ('Bud's Recruit' runs 26 minutes) depicting boy protagonists in morally challenging situations; invariably, virtue would triumph and a lesson would (hopefully) be learnt. Brown hoped that the films would make a profit as well as bring favourable publicity to his Boy Cities. He appeared on-screen as himself in most of the films, although in this print of 'Bud's Recruit' he is seen only during the opening credits. The Boy City films are significant for giving early directorial experience to King Vidor, who would later direct the most financially successful movie of the entire silent-film era: 'The Big Parade'. ('Birth of a Nation' made more money, but its profits were split among several different distributors in an arcane one-off arrangement.)
Judge Willis Brown's plans for the Boy Cities didn't last very long: his film studio folded in 1918, and his Boy Cities failed for lack of funding (and lack of proper management and supervision). Judge Brown was evidently not a good role model for wayward boys; in 1931, while married, he was shot to death by a woman who claimed she'd had a long adulterous affair with him. Good-night, judge.
Bud Gilbert is the younger son of a widow. (Bud is played by a child actor who looks to be about 12 years old.) It's 1918, and Bud is caught up in the wartime patriotic fervour: he wants to go to Berlin and punch the Kaiser in the nose. Conveniently, though, Bud's too young for Army service. Bud's older brother Reggie (played by an actor who looks about 30) is old enough to enlist, but doesn't care about the war. (With a name like Reggie, that's to be expected.) Even worse for Bud's patriotism, his mother is a member of the local chapter of the Peace Society, dedicated to keeping the United States OUT of the Great War. (Such societies actually existed during the First World War; there were quite a few in the Second World War as well. Plenty of Americans believed that what was going on in Europe was none of Uncle Sam's business.)
Bud displeases his mother by disrupting her Peace Society meeting, and then Bud is appalled when his mother serves a perfectly normal meal on a Monday. (During the Great War, 'meatless Mondays' were encouraged, since meat was rationed and the armed forces received priority on available supplies. During WW2, the official meatless day was the Tuesday.) In his patriotic fervour, Bud chooses to go hungry on Monday rather than eat a meal with meat in it. He also forms a militia of local youths, drilling them in the manual of arms and marching manoeuvres, in case General Pershing needs some under-age volunteers.
This low-budget movie is well-made (Vidor's talent is already evident) but deeply annoying. It manages to be propaganda on two fronts: stirring up war fever among Americans while also lecturing boys on acceptable behaviour. We're meant to admire Bud as a patriotic American, while despising his mother and his brother. (In the latter role, actor Robert Gordon gives a performance which is slightly effeminate, apparently to make sure we recognise that Reggie is a coward rather than merely a pacifist.) Of course it's extremely facile (if not downright hypocritical) that this movie is urging under-age boys to support the war effort, fully aware that those boys will remain on the home front while older males will be the ones dodging bullets.
In hindsight, it has become painfully clear that the First World War (unlike its sequel) was an incredibly pointless war, with thousands of young men slaughtered or horribly maimed for some alleged 'causes' that really didn't matter very much. I'm no pacifist, and there are certainly occasions when a man must be willing to enter harm's way and fight for a cause more important than himself, but World War One had no such cause ... and that awareness makes 'Bud's Recruit' more unpleasant to watch from a modern viewpoint. Purely for its proficient film-making, rather than its subject matter, I'll rate this movie 5 out of 10.
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