The story, told in eight episodes, covers different facets of the American Spirit, from racial and religious tolerance to the dangers of self-centeredness and myopic reasoning. The parables...
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This is a movie where three entirely different stories are told though dancing. Words are not used and the style of dancing is different for each part. Kelly is a clown in the 'Circus'; a ... See full summary »
The story, told in eight episodes, covers different facets of the American Spirit, from racial and religious tolerance to the dangers of self-centeredness and myopic reasoning. The parables represent a broad cross-section of the American experience: the elderly woman whose pride is injured when she's forgotten in the latest census; the novice minister more pleased with the sound of his own voice than with the needs of his congregation; the mother who confronts the illogic of racial intolerance when she meets the best friend of the son she lost to war; and the enigma that is Texas. Episode titles are: 1) Interruptions, Interruptions; 2) Census Taker; 3) Negro Story; 4) Rosika, the Rose; 5) Letter from Korea; 6) Lone Star; (7) Minister in Washington; 8) Four Eyes; a further episode, titled Load, directed by Anthony Mann, with 'Jean Hersholt' (q.v.) and 'Ann Harding' (q.v.), was filmed but deleted.Written by
Chris Stone <email@example.com>
Awkward propaganda film couches liberal sentiments in patriotic wrapping
I'm not quite sure who IT'S A BIG COUNTRY was aimed at. And given the fact that it was a box office flop, I'm guessing that the general audience didn't think it was aimed at them. It purports to show the diversity of America by offering seven segments promoting different aspects of life in postwar America, but it still traffics in stereotypes and Hollywood conventions. For instance, there are two segments involving immigrant fathers with children assimilating in ways they don't like. One immigrant father from Hungary hates Greeks and is appalled when his cherished oldest daughter falls in love with one. The other immigrant father, from Italy, refuses to let his son wear glasses because they're not manly even though the boy's teacher insists he needs them to be able to read the blackboard. In each case the immigrant, in a film supposedly pro-diversity, behaves in a most backward fashion. At least the Hungarian is played by an actual Hungarian immigrant actor, S.Z. Sakall, so there is some authenticity there. However, the Italian immigrant is played by Fredric March, of English, German and Scottish heritage, and the performance seems highly exaggerated. Surely, they could have gotten an Italian actor or even J. Carrol Naish, who did that kind of role effectively plenty of times in his career. It's the final sequence in the film and left me with a distinctly uneasy feeling. In the Hungarian sequence, Janet Leigh plays the oldest daughter and Gene Kelly plays the Greek she falls in love with. I guess this is what is meant by "ethnically blind" casting.
The first sequence goes so far as to dissect the notion that America is a "great country" when a traveling salesman (James Whitmore) on a train ride buttonholes a college professor (William Powell) to tell him that America is a great country and the professor then responds with "Which America?," and starts pointing out how different America is depending on where you are in its vast domain. So it looks like there will be some critique of blind patriotism, a direction then completely ignored in the rest of the film.
The segment on African-Americans doesn't even mention the race of its participants in the narration (by Louis Calhern) accompanying it, preferring to use the phrase, "other Americans." Instead of a fictional story, it offers a documentary sequence on prominent blacks in the postwar era, including Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, then the ambassador to the United Nations, General Benjamin O. Davis, and the late George Washington Carver. There are segments on sports and the arts that highlight Jackie Robinson and Lena Horne, among others. There are numerous less well-known blacks in government and business who are cited, so it's nice to see a slice of little-known history. Curiously, the military footage is all from World War II and shows a distinctly segregated military even though President Truman had desegregated the military three years before this film. I suspect that producer Dore Schary feared that any fictional story about blacks that they created for the film would get criticized for stereotypes, denounced for avoiding the topic of discrimination, or, if they chose to be bold enough to tell a proper story about blacks in the postwar era, boycotted by southern theater owners. The documentary sequence was clearly a compromise and it could easily be removed by theater owners in the south. There are no non-white characters in any other sequence of the film.
There's a comic monologue by Gary Cooper as a Texan who speaks modestly of the state's size and reputation, wondering, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, why everyone thinks Texas is so "big." It doesn't jibe with the rest of the sequences here and was clearly inserted for comic relief.
The best sequence is arguably the one in which an Irish immigrant widow, played by Ethel Barrymore, insists to a Boston newspaper editor (George Murphy) that the 1950 census did not include her, so, after a false start, the editor starts a campaign to get the Census Bureau to correct its mistake. It's about wanting to be acknowledged and recognized by the larger society, something each wave of immigrants has had to deal with in different ways over the last couple of centuries.
Another sequence focuses on a visiting minister (Van Johnson) who takes the pulpit at a church in Washington D.C. in 1944 at a time when the then-president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, attends that church. The minister tailors his carefully prepared sermon to the president every week, despite the president's absence, putting the regular parishioners to sleep until the church sexton (Lewis Stone) finally calls him on it, urging him to address the entire congregation. I'm not sure what this segment had to do with the aims of the film or what it was trying to tell us, but, interestingly, the sequence cuts from the entrance of the president (off-camera) at the very end to the next sequence where we see a school teacher at work, played by Nancy Davis, who would marry Ronald Reagan the following year and become the First Lady 30 years after this film, adding a surprisingly prophetic touch.
Curiously, the cast includes a mix of liberals and conservatives from Hollywood's ranks. George Murphy, Gary Cooper and Nancy Davis were notable conservatives, while Gene Kelly and Fredric March were outspoken liberals. I wonder what they all thought of the finished film.
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