Americana in American Films

There are three films that capture the “essence” if you will, of Americana. The films are “The Wizard of Oz”, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the characters and stories these films introduced to the American public in general and to the psyche of audiences worldwide, the definition is evident of what is best in American life and in the American spirit The Wizard of Oz is a film about a little girl and her dog as they travel through a fantasy world called Oz looking for a way back to her home in Kansas. This is a fantastic story but also a coming-of-age movie for many generations of Americans. Yet this children’s film has been shown in so many countries and to so many different children that it has become an iconic image representing America. There is so much hope and promise in the performance of Judy Garland and her face radiates with so much youth and innocence that she becomes the representation of a beacon of light for all ages. We see in her a promise of something better, something that she is striving for as she sings about a vague Utopia that is “somewhere over the rainbow.” In the vision that was created in that greatest of Hollywood dream factories in the Greatest of film years, 1939, we see an image of Hollywood at its finest. There are wonderful performances found here with a string of character actors that pop up in so many movies from years past. There is Bert Lahr, the old Vaudevillian, and Billie Burke, the veteran from the silent era. There is Margaret Hamilton, who gives us this iconic image of a villainess that is forever ingrained in our minds as she becomes the embodiment of the Archetypal Wicked Witch. There is Jack Haley as the Tin Man and Frank Morgan in a variety of roles. Then there is the mythos surrounding the cast of little people-the Munchkins-but the entire story is woven around the character of a young Judy Garland. Her fresh face and innocent but earnestly quivering voice have stayed with us for almost a century now. She is the stuff that dreams are made of. That is the greatness of the film. When it was introduced to those of my baby boomer generation, it had not been shown for many years and Danny Kaye introduced it in the sixties with a reverent pitch to his voice that gave a new spin to the never-forgotten scene where Dorothy opens the black and white door to a gloriously Technicolor Oz. This is almost a metaphor for the life we had lead in the fifties. It was an era of black & white television and a simpler time before technology brought us to the moon and then brought us lots of gadgets that we learned we could not live without. This was our introduction to a different life, a life where we have all “Gone Hollywood” so to speak. In It’s A wonderful Life, Capracorn is invented. It’s the type of film that Frank Capra believed in, and he believed in it enough to “bet the farm” that Jimmy Stewart was the one to play George Bailey. This movie was not a big hit at the time of release. That is to be expected as it’s a long film, an involved story, and it’s one that needs to be digested after several viewings. It’s the type of film that many people cannot imagine spending Christmas without viewing. There’s a great secular quality to it and yet there’s also a Spiritual dimension to this film. And like Americana, there’s a lot of “hoke” built into it-hence the term: Capracorn. Critics don’t often like to see emotive sequences consisting of God and Mom and Apple Pie. In this instance, George is not always a “goodie two-shoes”. He’s a cynic, at heart, but he’s fallen in love with a small-town girl and he’s fallen into the shoes of an inherited business that depends on his presence for its survival. In other words, this is not the life he chose, but rather one that was foisted upon him by others. He has many burdens to bear and the weight of his life is telling as the strands are becoming unraveled. The theme of religion is never overt but always interwoven in the fabric of our American existence. The story of George Bailey culminates with one of the most moving epiphanies of faith seen in American film. The moment on the bridge when George asks God “Please God, let me live again. I want to live again.” is an affirmation of faith that is declared by all who identify with the character of George Bailey in this movie. We are all buried underneath the yolk that is our lives; the yolk of debt, or of other burdens, and obligations plus family responsibility sits heavily on our shoulders at times. This is perhaps why his character can resonate so forcefully with so many that watch this film. George’s life is a litany of lost dreams and broken promises that are a part of his persona and make him the lovable yet sometimes cynical man that he becomes. In To Kill a Mockingbird we see the elements of Americana throughout. The goodness of the main characters, the innocence of the children, the racism and bigotry in the small town are all interwoven and held up as a mirror for our changing lives and changing society….. The movie is also a coming of age film within a courtroom drama. There is a life or death quality to it at times and the stark reality of small town America and the bigger dreams of the triumph over evil and the fight that Atticus wages as one man alone against a sea of bigotry and hatred represents a large part of our collective American story. We can identify with George Bailey for the dreams he has lost. But we identify with Atticus on a different level. Atticus is the embodiment of so many hopes and dreams that we aspire to in this country. The character of Atticus, as portrayed with quiet dignity by Gregory Peck, becomes someone we see in the same light to be found within the mythical beacon of light in Reagan’s “shining city upon the hill”. When we fight for the rights of the downtrodden and help the poor we are embracing the values that are an intrinsic part of Atticus’ makeup. He is the best in all of us and the person that we aspire to become. In the same movie, we see Scout as someone that many of us can identify with. She is curious and completely innocent of guile and vitriol, yet she has a temper and is easily swayed by many things that she sees and hears. We, the viewing audience, are all gullible to a certain extent and need to have boundaries set to guide us at times as we seek the truth in our ever-changing, fast-paced media savvy culture. Of the three films of Americana, perhaps the most innocent of all the characters is Dorothy, someone who is simply on a quest to come home. She is someone that we all have known and her life in part parallels our own. As a larger symbol of Americana, we are the innocents abroad that refuse to believe the world is the dark and menacing place that it is for so many people who live without our freedoms. Yet, we are a big-hearted society and we do open our hearts to many cultures, many beliefs and many different places throughout the globe. As Dorothy helped others to achieve their dreams, so are we a culture that still believes that helping others up is the only way we will survive. Yet always, in our heart of hearts, we have a great longing for our homes. When the troops were overseas in World War II, one of the top songs of the day played, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” And another hit song spoke to the belief that “There’s no place like home for the holidays”. There’s no place like home is the mantra for the American abroad. We are all vested in the dreams and hopes found in these three films. They have shaped our lives and described our shared destinies. They are a part of Americana and are arguably some of the best parts of our separate yet interwoven and uniquely American stories

Published by

MLJ

Author of "6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village", Ms. Johnson continues to blog on film and publishes a newsletter plus the Flipboard magazine 6 Degrees of Film @ the Movies. Her book is currently available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Degrees-Film-Future-Global-Village/

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