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Are We Civilized?


Norma (Anita Louise) settles a dispute between her father
(Frank McGlynn Sr.) and Paul Franklin Sr. (William Farnum),
while Paul Jr. (LeRoy Mason) lends support.
Release Year: 1934
Country: United States
Director: Edwin Carewe
Writers: Harold Sherman, Finis Fox
Cast: William Farnum, Anita Louise, Anita Louise, LeRoy Mason, Oscar Apfel, Stuart Holmes, Alin Cavin, Conrad Seideman, Sidney T. Pink, Harry Burkhardt, Charles Requa, J.C. Fowler, Bert Lindley, Aaron Edwards, William Humphrey
Music: Matthew Ray, Mussina Wachtel
Company: Raspin Productions
Runtime: 70 minutes


S

tory: According to the headlines, political corruption, social inequity, and rumors of an oncoming second world war plague mankind. Meanwhile, in an unnamed European country (cough, Germany, cough, cough), Paul Franklin Jr. (LeRoy Mason), the manager of the Office of Foreign Correspondents of the World News Association newspaper syndicate, is soon to be married to Norma Bockner (Anita Louise), daughter of Felix Bockner (Frank McGlynn Sr.), the Chief of the Germa--, er, the unnamed country's Censorship Bureau. Paul Franklin Sr. (William Farnum), Paul Jr.'s father and the owner of the newspaper syndicate, has just arrived from America to attend his son's wedding. Although they have been friends since childhood, the reunion between Franklin Sr. and Bockner in Paul Jr.'s office is soon spoiled by their political differences. Franklin Sr., who had emigrated to America after having received a severe head injury in the Great War, is a strong proponent of free speech and the freedom of the press, while Bockner, an important official in the newly installed government, is strongly opposed to anything critical being expressed about the administration's new policies and has had objectionable dispatches that were sent from Paul Jr.'s office intercepted. As their disagreement escalates, Norma steps in and appeases the two old friends by declaring the debate a draw, which is fortunate, since Bockner is hosting a state dinner in Franklin Sr.'s honor that very night.


Paul Franklin Sr. (William Farnum) attempts to dissuade
Felix Bockner (Frank McGlynn Sr.) and his associates
from their misguided path.
The dinner party is a lavish affair attended by top officials and the military elite and is broadcast live over the radio. Bockner gives a warm introduction to his friend and asks him to give them his impressions of the new government's policies. Franklin Sr. starts his speech with fond remembrances of his childhood in the country of his birth, but then contrasts those idyllic days with the bigotry and intolerance ushered in by the new administration. To the growing alarm of the guests, he warns that these new policies could lead to the downfall of civilization. As the guests become more agitated, Paul Jr. drags his father from the dinner before there is violence. After they leave, one of the guests, Colonel Salter, suggests that it may be necessary to permanently silence the troublesome Franklin Sr.

Arriving back at Paul Jr.'s house, Paul Jr. tells his father how proud he is of him but warns that they may soon need to leave the country. Franklin Sr. refuses to leave, so Paul Jr. decides to go to Norma and ask her to intercede with her father. A short time later, Franklin Sr. finds policemen pulling books from the shelves in Paul Jr.'s library, telling him that they have orders to burn all banned books. Bockner shows up with Colonel Salter and Doctor Gear and demands that Franklin Sr. issue a public apology for his insult to their government. Franklin Sr. refuses, so Bockner orders that both he and his son leave the country and orders the police to continue with their work in the library.


Stock footage from The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918)
Franklin Sr. makes an impassioned plea to his old friend that the books be saved, and says that he will prove their worth by retelling the story of civilization as taken from the very books that Bockner has ordered to be destroyed. Beginning with the creation of the Universe and the Earth from chaos, Franklin Sr. tells of the cooling of the Earth, the rise of life, the age of dinosaurs, and the appearance of primitive manódrawing pictures on cavern walls that will soon evolve into writing. Then Franklin Sr. goes on to recount Mankind's rise to civilization, with vignettes of Moses, Buddha, and Confucious. Franklin Sr. reminds his audience that through the ages humanity has suffered untold misery and death during the rule of tyranical warlords such as Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar so that civilization might advance. Then, the greatest event in human history occurs: Jesus comes unto the world and instructs humanity in the virtues of the Golden Rule.

Meanwhile, Paul Jr. and Norma are rushing back to Paul Jr.'s house in an attempt to ensure Franklin Sr.'s safety. They come upon policemen breaking up Paul Jr.'s offices and he tries to intervene, receiving a severe beating from the enraged mob, several of whom call out that he and his father are traitors.


Napoleon (William Humphrey) makes a brief appearance in
Franklin Sr.'s overview of mankind's struggle for civilization.
Back in the library, Franklin Sr. tells of Mohammed and the blood of millions that has been sacrificed in the onward march of civilization. He describes the invention of gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press as crucial aides in the advancement of mankind. Then comes Columbus and the discovery of the New World, the Pilgrims, and the American Revolution, George Washington, and that inspiring document, the Declaration of Independence. Next up is the horror of the French Revolution, which gives rise to Napoleon and his wars, followed by the American Civil War, Lincoln, the Industrial Revolution and modern society. Then, just when mankind appeared to be truly civilized, came the World War with millions killed and more millions injured. Then the joy of armistice gave way to the pursuit of money, reckless speculation, and the misery of the Great Depression. Everywhere distress, everywhere the search for peace and happiness, with mankind blaming the illnesses of the world on anyone else but themselves. And now, another coming war, more horrible than the last. Franklin Sr. warns that another war means suicide for the human race, either by its own hand or by the avenging wrath of the Earth itself.


Paul Jr. (LeRoy Mason) vows to spread his father's message.
Unfortunately, Bockner and his associates are unmoved by Franklin Sr.'s eloquence, and Bockner once again tells Franklin Sr. that he and his son must leave the country or they will be deported. As Bockner turns to go, he again orders the policemen to continue with their gathering of the books. Franklin Sr. follows them out onto the street, where a crowd has gathered around the bonfire of burning books. Franklin Sr. tries to convince the people that they are enslaving themselves by embracing the restrictions on their civil liberties but he is struck in the head when a bystander hurls a book at him.

The blow to Franklin Sr.'s head reopens his old war wound and he falls to the ground. Bockner and his associates have him carried inside and he is tended by Dr. Gear. The bandaged and bruised Paul Jr. finally arrives with Norma as Franklin Sr. lies fatally wounded in the library. Franklin Sr. tells them that mankind will never truly be civilized until all races are one in spirit, understanding, and brotherly love. As he dies, Paul Jr. promises to spread his message to the world.




C

omment: At the beginning of the 1930s, Edwin Raschbaum and Sidney T. Pink formed an independent production company in New York called Raspin Productions. Following their first film, the compilation feature Explorers of the World (1931), the company acquired 200,000 feet of old silent movie film and decided to form a motion picture around the archival footage. Harold Sherman, a playwright and writer of stories for the Boy Scout's house magazine, Boy's Life, was called upon to come up with a story based on the old footage. Sherman viewed the footage and devised the scenario for Are We Civilized?. The producers liked the idea and Sherman developed the concept into a screenplay.


Napoleon's farewell to the Guard at Fontainbleau from
archival footage (perhaps William Humphrey in the lost
1909 film The Life of Napoleon).
The film was shot in Hollywood under the direction of Edwin Carewe. Carewe had been a successful director of motion pictures during the Silent Era, and Are We Civilized? was the final step in his failed attempt to make the transition to sound pictures. Carewe's brother, Finis Fox (Carewe's birth name was Jay Fox), was brought in to work with Sherman on polishing his script.

To incorporate the archival silent footage used to illustrate Frankin Sr.'s overview of history, Carewe had costumed actors stand silently in front of a black background shrouded in optical mist. After a few seconds of footage of the historical figure, the scene would disolve into a series of historical vignettes made up of the silent footage, with Franklin Sr. continuing his narration over the soundtrack. The actor hired to portray Napoleon was William Humphrey, who had played Napoleon thousands of times on stage and screen dating back to before the turn of the century.

The silent footage illustrating Napoleon's career consists of brief scenes of Napoleon's farewell to the Old Guard at Fountainbleu as he's leaving for exile on Elba in 1814, the battlefield at Waterloo, and a closing shot of Napoleon dreaming of past glories while on the island of Saint Helena. The footage appears to have remained unidentified, but may be from William Humphrey's otherwise lost 1909 film The Life of Napoleon, which consisted of a series of tableaux from Napoleon's life.

As an independent feature, Are We Civilized? had trouble finding a distributor, and reports that distributors were discouraged from picking up the film due to pressure from the German government may have been little more than efforts to drum up publicity. The film received mixed reviews, with many critics complaining about the low budget and preachiness of the storyline, but it was quite popular with educators, church groups, and civic organizations. The spotty distribution apparently did little to advance Raspin Production's fortunes, however, as it was their last feature.

Seen today, the film stands as a fairly obvious anti-Nazi and pacifist propaganda piece, but it is surprising pertinent in its warnings about the dangers of people surrendering their civil rights in the name of nationalism and security in this post 9-11 world. Perhaps its greatest failing is that its message is somewhat diminished by the nature of the historical events and personages used by Franklin Sr. in describing mankind's progress towards civilization. The film seems to want to have it both ways: while great leaders advance civilization, the persistence of the people while suffering under the rule of dangerous warlords advances civilization as well. Under this theory, the extraordinary suffering humanity will soon endure through the upcoming Second World War could almost be seen as a good thing.


H

istorical Context: Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933 and had himself made dictator in 1934. While the leader of the unnamed European country is never mentioned in the film, and some of the more germanic aspects of the original screenplay (such as character names) were neutralized in an attempt to retain a worldwide audience, it is quite obvious that the events of the film are taking place in Germany. Though a bit heavy handed, the film accurately depicts the book burnings, fascism, and racial intolerance that had been instituted at the beginning of Hitler's reign. The few seconds of the film devoted to Napoleon are a bit ambiguous, in that the narration about the terrors of the French Revolution and Napoleon's wars is presented without any explicit comment on their effects on mankind's progress.

Availability: Are We Civilized? is in the public domain, and video tape DVD transfers are available from a number of sources. The film has also been posted at Archive.org.

References: IMDb; Wikipedia; Raevouri, Saskia (editor), THE MAKING OF ARE WE CIVILIZED?, e-Book, Square Circles Publishing, 2011.



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© 2012 by Clark J. Holloway.