American Dreams

by John Jakes

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Last Updated on May 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1414

In this historical novel, Jakes creates characters who interact with real people, like Henry Ford, Barney Oldfield, Kaiser Wilhelm, Pancho Villa, Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, D. W. Griffith, and many others. He also incorporates numerous fictional secondary characters who appear in episodes occurring in Chicago, Detroit, New York, London, California, Mexico, Germany, and Belgium. The main characters have composite traits of famous people who were active in automobile racing, flying, making movies, and filming newsreels between 1900-1920. When Carl flunks out of Princeton because he is bored and yearns for adventure, he angers his father, Joseph Crown, founder of the Crown Brewery, a man whose life has been built on duty and hard work. Carl leaves Chicago and goes to Detroit, where he works for Henry Ford. He delivers Ford's sturdy, Model-T automobile to eager customers. Its low price makes ownership a possibility for working class people. In comparison, other manufacturers continue to produce custom-built automobiles like the Hudson, Cadillac, and Packard for wealthy people until Ford's methods gradually become the production model for the industry.

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During episodes at Ford, Carl observes the development of efficient assembly line methods. At a subsidiary foundry, where his black friend Jesse works, he observes hazardous conditions: molten metal, unsafe machinery, and flammable paints. Ford has strict rules about the behavior of employees, so when Carl gets in a fight to protect himself from thugs who have been hired by Wayne Sykes, a jealous rival, he is fired. During the fight, Jesse is so badly injured that he is permanently disabled. Medical insurance or worker's compensation is, of course, nonexistent, but Jesse is a survivor.

Carl falls in love with Tess Clymer, daughter of a wealthy Detroit industrialist. Clymer's disapproval of their relationship, and Carl's youthful obsession with race car driving postpone a commitment. With Tess's blessing and her red silk scarf around his neck, Carl leaves Detroit, unaware that he has impregnated Tess. To hide her indiscretion with Carl, Tess marries Wayne Sykes, a fortune hunter.

On weekends, Carl, wearing Zeiss goggles, a heavy duster, and gloves, races in an Edmunds Special, owned by a wealthy playboy. He competes with drivers who race Peugeots, Masons, and other custom-built cars. At the track, Carl meets his idol, Barney Oldfield, the famous race car driver. Out of a job, and thinking that racing will be an exciting adventure, Carl signs on as part of Oldfield's show, traveling the racing circuit and pretending to compete on the track with Oldfield, whose fans, fascinated by the speed and sound of the engines, mob him at every appearance. Oldfield's drinking binges, fights, and instability disgust Carl. When Oldfield's wife falsely accuses Carl of sexual harassment, he is glad to leave the company.

Going from one fast lane to the next, Carl meets Rip Ryan at Redlands, California. Crippled with arthritis, Ryan gives Carl flying lessons in a Curtiss-designed airplane. The easy-to-fly plane is different from that of the Wright Brothers because the engine is mounted behind the pilot. To pay for the lessons, Carl repairs the plane's hangar.

After he becomes a skilled pilot, Carl then signs on with Frenchman Rene Le Maye to do exhibition flying with a team of daredevils who thrill crowds with their exciting, death-defying stunts. They fly a Martin bi-plane, a Bleriot, and a Curtiss.

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Rene signs a contract with Federalistas in Mexico to fly reconnaissance spy missions over Pancho Villa's troop trains and territory being invaded by rebels from northern Mexico. The United States supports the Federalistas at the insistence of W.R. Hearst, who has oil and mining investments in Mexico. Following a plane crash, Carl barely escapes having "to face the adobe wall" with his back to a firing squad, the usual fate of American mercenaries in Mexico. Realizing they are on the losing side of a civil war, Carl and Rene abandon the Federalistas and enlist in France as fighter pilots. Carl flies reconnaissance planes over German lines and survives an air battle with an Aviatik and Fokker. Hermann Goering is the German pilot who shoots Carl down and later writes him a friendly note.

Paul lives in London with his wife Julie and their children. He travels the world making "actualities," or newsreels for the London Light publishing company. In Mexico, he and his assistant Sammy film a battle between Pancho Villa's rebels and German equipped Federalistas. In Europe, they film Kaiser Wilhelm's growing arsenal in Germany and evidence of increasing German nationalism. When Germany invades Belgium, they film refugees fleeing from goose-stepping soldiers and modern trucks and artillery. From a barn, Paul films a family being executed with bayonets for setting up roadblocks to impede the well-equipped army. Paul smuggles the roll of film out of Europe to show to Americans, hoping to inform them of German atrocities. Most Americans, an ocean away from the war, follow the lead of President Wilson, a pacifist, but many German-Americans, like Joseph Crown, support Kaiser Wilhelm's aggression. When Paul returns to the Continent to film battle scenes, his young assistant Sammy is killed during a bombardment.

Meanwhile in America, moving pictures have become an important addition to communication media. These "movies," as fans call them, are shown for five cents in nickelodeons, empty store buildings with folding chairs in run-down parts of town. People from all social classes flock to see jerky, black-and-white newsreels and comedies. Sound is not yet developed, so actors use exaggerated gestures and move their lips as if they are speaking dialogue.

Disappointed by her lack of success on the Broadway stage, and suffering from lack of income, Fritzi works for Liberty Films, a "blanket" company, so called because the photographer smuggles his camera under a blanket to location and uses other surreptitious means to avoid paying royalties to Thomas Edison, the inventor. Many scenes are filmed outdoors, and others are filmed in warehouse lofts with makeshift props and costumes. Film processing chemicals are highly flammable, and during one editing session, a studio catches fire.

Bad weather in New York and harassment from patent detectives over use of Edison's motion picture camera force fledgling film companies to migrate to California. D. W. Griffith, director of Biograph, Billy Bitzer, famous cameraman, and the rest of the company head west. Fritzi leaves New York unwillingly to make films for Liberty near the "hick" town of Venice in sunny California. Later, she discovers that she loves her life as a film actress in California.

Though Fritzi longs for serious roles, producers, directors, cameramen, and fans recognize her natural ability as a mime and comedienne. Gradually, she becomes the focus of the "Lone Indian" series, and later becomes a star as "Knockabout Nell," a girl whose comical accidents have the unexpected effect of making things turn out right. Eventually Fritzi becomes a screen star, a member of "America's royalty."

Fritzi falls passionately in love with a mysterious cowboy bit player, Loyal (Loy) Hardin, who is always on the move. He is a Gary Cooper type, strong and silent and hard-to-get. Loy confesses that even though he loves her, he cannot make a commitment to Fritzi because he is wanted for murder in Texas. After he says goodbye forever, Fritzi is heartbroken. Too late, she discovers that the charges against Loy were dropped because the so-called murder was justified. Later, Fritzi renews her close friendship with Harry Poland, who courts her and makes her feel loved.

Secondary characters are numerous. Those with romantic attachments to Carl and Fritzi are Tess Clymer, Loy Hardin, and Harry Poland. Fritzi's associate from the Broadway stage, Hobart Manchester, becomes a father figure and her ally to the end. At Liberty Pictures, producer B. B. Pelzer knows Fritzi's worth as a person and her economic value to the studio. After he survives the sinking of the Lusitania and the death of his beloved Sophie, B. B. is institutionalized for severe depression. Defending Fritzi's rights at the studio helps him recover.

Villains include Pearly Purvis, a patent detective who tries to shove Fritzi under a train and falls to his death, instead; Wayne Sykes, fortune-hunter, who marries Tess with her father's approval; Rita Oldfield, whose lies get Carl beaten and fired; Al Kelly, short-sighted and tight-fisted financier of Liberty Pictures; Kaiser Wilhelm, whose arrogance and German nationalism start a war that kills millions and nearly destroys Europe; and General Joseph Crown, whose loyalty to his German heritage and rigid adherence to duty, honor, hard work, and social conformity estrange his children.

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