#186) The Making of an American (1920)


#186) The Making of an American (1920)

OR “English, Mother-Tonguer, Do You Speak It!?”

Directed by Guy Hedlund

Class of 2005

The Plot: Italian immigrant Pete (Emil De Varney) arrives in America with dreams of making a new successful life for himself. Problem is, he can’t speak English, which severely limits his job opportunities. He is encouraged by fellow immigrant Tony (Unknown Actor) to attend night school and learn English. Once Pete masters the language and graduates from his program, everything really starts to go his way. A powerful message from your friends at the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the short “a sincere, dramatically effective public education film”. And we get another essay from Buckey!

But Does It Really?: I found this one quite interesting because we don’t see a lot of silent educational films. We tend to associate instructional shorts more with the ‘50s: Dominant voiceovers, stilted acting, slight propaganda qualities. The silent era still has its share of trappings, but they help differentiate this film from any similar films in the sound era. “The Making of an American” is a surprisingly well made film that encapsulates the immigrant boom of the early 20th century and an early attempt to use film to mass-distribute a message.

Everybody Gets One: Director Guy Hedlund was primarily an actor in the silent era. “The Making of an American” is one of two directing credits for Hedlund, the second being 1916’s “Hungry Happy’s Dream”. Both Hedlund and actor Emil De Varney have very few credits following this one.

Wow, That’s Dated: The lucrative profession of elevator operator.

Other notes

  • The NFR write-up says that the intertitles were presented in English, Italian, and Polish. The print I watched (courtesy of the Library of Congress YouTube page) only had them in English.
  • Pete is a dead-ringer for Jerry Colonna.
  • “The way to do a thing is to begin.” Who wrote these intertitles? Some of them read like they were translated into a foreign language and then back into English.
  • The school blew their budget on all those phones. Every student has one!
  • “Mastery over all good things begins with mastery of self.” Okay, I like that one. It sounds like a good fortune cookie fortune…in bed.
  • Surprise guest star Mark Twain handing out the diplomas.
  • Man, Pete gets all of this success just by learning English? I should give that a try!


  • ESL Adult Education has been encouraged throughout the years, including by this handy guide from 1975.

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