There is “Old Ironsides,” the venerable frigate USS Constitution, and then there is Old Ironsides—the big-budget, big-screen extravaganza that wowed the crowds during Hollywood’s silent-movie era.
Though largely forgotten today, when it premiered in December 1926, Old Ironsides was hailed as a milestone filmmaking achievement. Paramount Studios had spared no expense on the production, employing an early widescreen process called “Magnascope” that would kick on during certain scenes to eye-popping effect. A beautiful Maine-built square-rigger, the Llewellyn J. Morse, was fitted out to appear as the famous frigate, and audiences must have been awed at the sight of her up there on the silver screen, sails majestically filled.
The cast features brawny, swaggering Wallace Beery, playing a bo’sun and laying it on thick with the “aye, matey!” business—presaging his iconic performance as Long John Silver eight years later in Treasure Island. Black heavyweight boxer George Godfrey has a role that feels refreshingly and rarely egalitarian for its time; race seems irrelevant between him and his shipmates. As a trivia bonus, to the sharp-eyed viewer, Gary Cooper and Boris Karloff are in there somewhere, in microscopic parts. (A remarkably pristine restoration of the film was released in 2008; it’s available on Blu-ray and viewable on YouTube.)
For 1920s filmgoers wishing for action, spectacle, and romance, Old Ironsides checked those boxes. But for those who care about the true saga of the Constitution and the early U.S. Navy, the movie is somewhat tough to endure. The history portrayed is dodgy, scrambled, and riddled with fanciful shifting-about and condensing of time frames and sequences of historical events. Its tone is full-throatedly patriotic and pro-Navy, but its blithe, slapdash historical inaccuracies grate woefully on the nerves. Taking place in a Hollywoodized mish-mash version of the First Barbary War (and kneecapped by a sappy, tedious, grafted-on love story), the movie is rife with salty-dog character actors chewing up the scenery and spouting such lines as “Stow yer jaw-tackle and tar them ropes, you wind-jammer!”
But if Old Ironsides is creaky as entertainment and useless as history, the film itself can be said to be a part of the Constitution’s history—for it came out during the desperately needed “Save Old Ironsides” campaign that launched in 1924 and culminated with the frigate’s celebrated national fundraising tour in the early 1930s. The ship was in dire need of major repairs by the 1920s, and the public rallied admirably to the cause: A nationwide “pennies campaign” among schoolchildren raised $154,000; the Elks Club sponsored a national essay contest; the sale of Constitution merchandise contributed to the coffers—and the timely appearance of a stirring cinematic paean to the ship no doubt went great lengths to inspire the populace to pitch in.
To set an example of pitching in, Paramount donated the box-office take from the premiere of Old Ironsides to the Constitution’s restoration effort. And on the back page of the movie’s lavish souvenir program—a copy of which, seen here, was donated recently to the U.S. Naval Institute Archives—the filmmakers’ declaration bespeaks their worthy intent: “She Saved the Nation, Let Us Save Her.”
Programs from plays or movies are ephemeral by nature; when one of them manages to survive past its brief hour of informational relevance, it is a thing to be treasured by those of us who come later. The Old Ironsides program—chock full of movie stills, production notes, Constitution artwork, and even some historical vignettes—is arguably more fun and entertaining than the movie itself. It conveys a sense of excitement, a sense that this was more than just a movie, but a major event. And we all can be thankful that Old Ironsides made a big splash at just the right moment—when the real “Old Ironsides” needed all the help she could get.