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This film feels like a moving representation of Norman Rockwell paintings, displaying a homespun, good-natured respect for traditions and the values that drove the United States to become successful. From the viewpoint of the 21st century, some of these values seem naïve. In our post-Watergate world, fewer Americans see government authority and other established authorities as innately benign. But it is simplistically easy to view this film as merely propaganda or naïve.
Most of the episodes in this collection of vignettes champion values that were and are important to embrace: Racial understanding. The American melting pot. The Constitutional freedoms. But reading some reviews of the film, it is clear that some viewers also see the film as a documentary on American exceptionalism. And it's a subtext that cannot be ignored. Various individuals have always promoted the idea that America is the greatest country that ever existed--teachers, politicians, the military, the clergy.
The thing that is exceptional and unique about the U.S. is its Constitution. Sometimes that message is lost in the nationalistic clamor.
The film has an exceptional cast (Frederic March continues to amaze), exceptional writing that stirs the heart and summons tears, and solid production values. For those of any age, it can serve as a marker designating the state of the country circa 1950. So many complex factors have affected the evolution of the U.S. from what it was to what it is now. I like being reminded of the optimism of that time, however naïve. And it can remind us of the values we need to preserve and the viewpoints we have thankfully left behind.
Episodic by nature and all the vignettes have their charm but the first three are really the best.
William Powell and James Whitmore breeze their way through a lively discussion of the ever evolving nature of the country. Their reactions to each other are what makes the skit.
Next up is a little story about not being lost in the crowd made charming by Ethel Barrymore's gentle performance.
The next segment is a tribute to notable African Americans which is nice in and of itself but that's also why it's a bit problematic. Considering the time it was made the isolated state of the short would have made it easy to snip out in the South. Of course the same could be said for any of the stories but since their are not people of color in any of the other segments it's rather obvious that was the intention at the time. Still it's a nice opportunity to see the significant Americans it spotlights.
The other sections all showing various slices of life, aside from Gary Cooper's star bit simply representing Texas, are pleasant but are on the sticky side of sweet.
It's a film with several different segments, some serious some pretty funny about every day Americans in all walks of life, in all parts of the then 48 states.
The two I liked best were those that ironically starred the two men who were not MGM contract players, Gary Cooper and Fredric March. Gary Cooper plays a Texas cowboy talking about his state and disillusioning us with a tongue in cheek delivery about the way Texans and Texas are perceived by the other 47 states. Of course Cooper's humor and the whole premise behind this segment was that Texas was our largest state in land mass. That ended in 1959 when Alaska became the 49th state, still it's the highlight of It's A Big Country.
Fredric March plays an Italian American father who's opposed to his son, Bobby Hyatt, getting needed glasses even after teacher Nancy Davis tells him it's necessary. He's got some old world ideas that need a bit of adjustment. March plays the role with dignity never do you feel he's a caricature.
Another episode that is nicely done involves Gene Kelly, Greek American boy falling for Janet Leigh, Hungarian American girl. They've got a problem though, her father played by Hollywood's number one Hungarian S.Z. Sakall. In the past 20 years we've seen a whole lot of stories about ancient ethnic hatreds coming out of Eastern Europe. Sakall is carrying some old grudges against Greeks though he really isn't sure why. Point being that here in America you're supposed to leave that all behind. That segment is still very much relevant.
Could we make It's A Big Country today? Not at this time, maybe at some future point when we've reached a national consensus that despite all our problems, America's a pretty good place after all.
I had thought that the "episodic" film format was an invention of the 1980's art film. "It's a Big Country" killed that myth by presenting a film about the USA that is built on eight different episodes. The episodes are drawn together by a common narration, their focus on different ways of looking at the USA, and the introductory episode which lays out the concept for the film.
In the opening segment, James Whitmore rides a commuter train and tells another rider, "I love this country?" The other rider's response catches Whitmore off guard. "Which country?" He then points out that the USA is many countries -- political, military, religious, industrious, urban, rural, and many others. Each of the following seven segments of the film then focus on various ways of looking at the USA.
The actors in those seven segments are a "Who's Who" of 1950's film. The already mentioned Whitmore, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Gary Cooper, Janet Leigh and Keenan Wynn share the screen along with many others, including legends Ethel Barrymore and Fredric March. If you are a classic film lover, check out the list of credits and you'll find at least one favorite among the actors.
The film overall only comes across as average however -- it seems rather "preachy" on the concept of acceptance, and the happy endings of the segments come across too sugary. Fortunately the great acting in some of the segments pull them to the top of the heap. Gary Cooper's deadpan delivery combined with his Texas drawl in the one true comedy segment work's well. And the final segment in which a young immigrant boy finds he must wear glasses at the risk of ridicule of his father as well as his friends at school is equally appealing.
There is one glaring inconsistency in the film. The overall point seems to be that we must drop our racial stereotypes. To that end virtually every racial stereotype is presented and cut down. Each of the episodes of the film is presented as independent stories within the film -- little stories within the story. But when they presented the segment focusing on African American's, no story is given, only a narrated segment with stock shots of black America are presented. Not one known American actor of African descent is included. In this respect, Hollywood seems to have been unable to overcome it's own prejudice and exclusionary practices of that time.
You might enjoy portions of this film, but most persons will either stop part way through or fall asleep during this average film.
Wellmann and co tell us that America is a big country ,with big differences but where everybody has his place in the sun: in the "celebrities" segment,there are plenty of black artists such as Armstrong ,but the civil rights were ignored in 1949.
What saves this naive film containing more finer feelings than a Capra movie,is some kind of humor .Take the first scene on a train and the last sentence of the baffled traveler or the Hungarian daddy who does not want his daughters to marry a Greek,cause we are "enemies" .How great the melting pot is!And so are Gene Kelly and Janet Leigh.
Some stars only appear a few minutes:Gary Cooper tells us what a wonderful state "Lone Star" Texas is where oil spurts out everywhere under your feet;Ethel Barrymore plays a delightful old lady who is cross cause she was not counted when they took a census of the population.
The last sketch ,about glasses ,was perhaps not a very good choice to conclude the movie.
It was,is and will always be a big country.
So how did a film with such a stellar cast flop? It was 8 unrelated "skits" about some aspect of American life. So each star was on camera for maybe 5-10 minutes only. Some of the stories were dumb and/or boring. Lots of propaganda-type film in between. A couple of the stories were interesting -- for example the Italian family segment (headed by Fredric March) was well done, as was the census story headed by Ethel Barrymore.
This is NOT one for your DVD shelf, but is worth one watch for the big stars.
A who's who of Hollywood in the period 1930 thru 1951, this wonderful telling of America's greatness shows a time when the liberal media was in check and Americans were taught to be PROUD of what we have built. A far cry from the liberal propaganda that is spewed on your 6pm "news" today.
Watch the opening interaction between Spencer Tracy and William Powell. If Powell's oratory does not move you to want to see the rest of this outstanding piece of American film history, you might as well book a one-way ticket to another country. Maybe you'd be happier there.
A wonderful film of America, for Americans. Easily 10 of 10.