Sunday, July 3, 2016

Leave the Poor White House Alone! Blow Something ELSE Up This Weekend!

You'll see the question if you hang around enough forums, fan sites, or other hangouts where movies are a small handful of cult titles folks in their twenties or under remember from just past their own lifetime:
What's the ONE movie you have to watch every holiday?

Christmas, that's easy--Everyone says "It's a Wonderful Life" on reflex, except for the kids who were hypnotized by Ted Turner into believing "A Christmas Story" is a classic, and the smartaleck/doods who say "Bad Santa forever, woo!"
Thanksgiving has become our national observance of "Planes, Trains & Automobiles".  Valentine's Day will usually be the 90's romantic comedy Sleepless With Sally, or whatever that movie was with Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal where she did that thing in the restaurant, they chatted on AOL, and finally met on top of the building.  
Halloween?  You tell me.  And Memorial Day will be everyone's favorite war movie, until someone starts the argument about whether it should be for Veteran's Day.

And July 4?  "Well, duh--'Independence Day'!  Y'know, like Bill Pullman, when he makes that big speech in the climax!  It's totally symbolic of our American spirit!"  (Yes, and thank you for reminding us of all those Brexit politicians who thought it was now a political victory to quote the Pullman scene, just because the dopey sequel was opening in theaters the same day.  They thought they were being cool.)
Ah.  So, it's the title.  Good reason.  Of course, you'll also find those open-minded folk who say "No, that doesn't have to do with the holiday, like Mel Gibson in 'The Patriot', that's history!"  And then the showoffs who still remember Al Pacino in "Revolution"--that's real-looking history--despite the fact that the movie was considered unreleasably awful by its own studio when it almost didn't play theaters.

Here's an idea:  Remember that last post, that suggested "Surprise yourself" with a movie you haven't seen?  Those who have seen it are faithfully and ritualistically ahead of me on this one, with their July 4 pick that's almost considered as sacred as, well, The Ten Commandments is to Easter:
1776.  Directed by Peter Hunt, 1972, from Peter Stone's Broadway musical.  (Well, they almost had a bicentennial, there.)  Now available on Blu-ray and on digital rental from Vudu and Amazon.

You want history?  How about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin arguing over a "declaration of independence" in Philadelphia?  And singing about it.

It's history they don't usually tell you:  John Adams was a frustrated ball of irritation.  Thomas Jefferson's cool intellect heated up around his wife.  And Ben Franklin loved to live up to his reputations, bad or otherwise.  It's all good musical-comedy fun, until they start discussing the big British elephant in the room, and the debates among all thirteen colonies turn so tense, heated and divisive, a "United" States isn't starting to look all that likely.  But somehow, at the last minute, it happened.
Some, of an earlier generation, remember being shown it in school as history--like the great Schoolhouse Rock songs, we remember the names of the five men in the Declaration drafting committee by earworm song lyrics--and the infectious fun comes from the fact that many of the literate one-liners in the movie actually come from real-life quotes and letters by the real persons involved.  (Yes, the real-life Mr. Adams did reportedly say "History won't remember our achievements, it'll be 'Ben Franklin did this' and 'Ben Franklin did that'...'Ben Franklin struck the ground with his walking stick, and there arose George Washington, on his horse.'")  I remember the field trip of our fourth-grade class walking the four blocks to the corner theater to see it, but that's a story to be told later.

The musical's had a recent reawakening of popularity with a new generation of fans who've discovered the appeal of old-school Broadway musicals.  And to the reason they like them, I'll answer ahead of time the first question they'll always ask:
No, Alexander Hamilton is NOT in the movie.  He was nowhere near Philadelphia at the time.  QUIT ASKING, and watch other musicals!

For other history, Disney's Johnny Tremain (d. Robert Stevenson, 1957, now available on DVD and for rent on Amazon and Vudu) technically isn't July--it's July-ish, even though it captures the December event of the Boston Tea Party and the April events of Paul Revere's Ride and the Battle of Concord & Lexington, and converts them into family-friendly legend.
From the future Mary Poppins director who knew how to make 50's-60's live-action Walt-era Disney look classy and give them G-rated earnestness you could completely buy into at that age.

I confess I missed out on the Esther Forbes children's book growing up--Even though I lived in Worcester, MA at one point, that one day had a city-sponsored participatory reading of the book for the local-author-made-good day, that bit of Newbery summer-reading-list escaped me, and my middle-school class had gone for the musical version of the Revolution instead.

As a Disney fan, I remember talking with one European fan who wanted to visit Disney World and thought Frontierland would be the "American" experience.  I tried to explain that Liberty Square--which Walt wanted to add to his parks just based on the atmospheric Tremain sets of pre-revolutionary Boston--was "more" American than the Wild West everyone else knows for, but it's hard to explain why.
Here, as the young title apprentice wanders in and out of intrigue surrounding Boston's most successful silversmith (who's also pretty good on a horse), we get a basic Disney Version of the first three stories everyone knows, that somehow hadn't quite been filmed yet.  And you realize, why should our history not be a "legend" to other countries as much as a Hollywood French Revolution epic is to ours?
For all the Republicans' mythologizing of "the Tea Party" as an angry rabble-rouse, we see it historically recreated more or less realistically as the relatively simple business-minded bit of organized intimidation and protest that it was...Although I don't think we had quite as much of the clean-cut singing back then, though:

A little harder to find, but still available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive and for rental on Amazon is the one that made the AFI 100 list of Just Plain Darn Great American Movies to See Before You Die (and went up two points on the second list):
Yankee Doodle Dandy, d. Michael Curtiz, 1942.

Like the others, most will probably rent it for the title.  Or, because for those who do bad James Cagney impressions, the second most quoted Cagney trope behind "You dirty raaat..." will be "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dannn-dee..." Well, that one, at least, he did say.

Cagney was one of Warner's biggest house-brand stars as the gritty "Studio of the streets", but even as far back as 1933's "Footlight Parade", the studio knew they not only had the toughest mug who ever shoved a grapefruit in a moll's face or hit the top of the world, ma, they also had one incredible tap-dance hoofer.  Tough Guys Do Dance.
And a flag-waving big of mid-wartime WWII morale-propaganda for the studio brought Cagney back in a showbiz bio of song-and-dance-man George M. Cohan, who wrote just about every single July 4 song we remember, and put most of them into his big show "Little Johnny Jones":

It's not just that this movie sings patriotic songs, although the upbeat flag-waving by 1942 standards could dislocate an arm.  It's that this movie is like watching five showbiz bios rolled into one.
According to the movie, Cohan had a very long and colorful career from childhood vaudeville up until the 1930's, and the movie doesn't stop giving us colorful Hollywood songwriter-bio tropes about the days of variety shows and Tin Pan Alley.  There's some subplot or musical number going on every minute.  EVERY.
The framing device has old retired Cohan invited to the White House to meet...gosh, we'd swear it sounds like FDR, but we never see his face for sure!...and in the climax, on his way out the door, Cagney improvised one last happy bit of Yankee once-a-hoofer rebelliousness:

How anyone could make it through the holiday without these three movies, I'll never know.  There are many choices to go On Beyond ID4 (and just where the heck did the "4" come from, anyway?  Never could figure that out), but it's a question of whether you see the holiday as about history, or about a bit of picnic flag-waving and fireworks.

All I know is, it's not about the Old Jewish-Stereotype Guy, the Whiny Jeff Goldblum Guy, or the Crazy Crop-Duster Guy.

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