The type of films that define us as a culture come from the past annals of American history. We are a patriotic people, yet one of our great American actors starred in a film that defines America as a slightly cynical yet still deeply romantic persona. That would be Bogart in the classic “Casablanca.” In this film, America is seen as a beacon of hope for many who were stuck in a war-ravaged place.
Bogart is “Rick Blaine, a jaded ex-patriot who casts a cynical eye on all things political and idealistic. Bogart’s portrayal captured the pulse of America at the end of World War II. The humor that was deeply embedded in his character came through as a type of gallows humor. When asked why he came to Casablanca, he says, “For the waters.” When told they are land-locked, he says with irony, ‘I was mis-informed.”
“An American in Paris” was a romantic version of a type of character that defined our nation in the post war era. Gene Kelly was also slightly cynical but light-hearted and fun-loving.
Kelly’s athleticism, his rapport with the children in Paris, his idealism and enthusiasm are part of the American character. Kelly’s style and rough-hewn character contrasted sharply with the old-world charm of the already legendary appeal of Fred Astaire. They defined American musicals for generations to come and breathed new life into dance as an art form.
In “Pollyanna”, the stereotype of the Pollyanna-ish world view is given clear definition with a wonderful portrayal, ironically by the British born Hayley Mills. The little girl who loves to play “the glad game” comes into the lives of a group of sour and disillusioned individuals in a small town and transforms their lives. When she becomes paralyzed, they pull together to cheer her up and remind her that live is worth living again. That is part and parcel of the American pioneer spirit that is often touted in one form or another in film.
“Rebel without a Cause” is a film that gives new definition to the term American hero. Here is a young man who is filled with angst. There is no greater drama in his life than the anger and frustration he sees in his own family. James Dean’s portrayal of Jim Stark, the new kid in town, became a defining vision for so many young men and women who were beginning to forge their own identities outside of the boundaries of their cloistered family circle. The rebellion and anger that is found brewing so close to the surface in many young people had never been fully explored as it was in this defining film of the fifties.
“The Music Man”, made in 1962, was one of the last of the films made in this list of Americana movies. The film defines a part of the country that had not been touched upon in the modern era. Iowa and Indiana, the heartland that is seen as a type of “silent majority” where people live quietly, work hard and stay close to the land is examined in this musical comedy. Harold Hill, played convincingly by Robert Preston, is a con man who inevitably has a heart of gold. His love of children, his deep dreams that have never been realized, and his talent for connecting with people on a personal level and correctly reading their deepest desires is the heart of this film. The music is memorable, and it remains one of the best movie musicals of the latter part of the twentieth century. But more than that, the character of a con man and ne’er do well who is finally trapped by love, not only of a good woman but of a desire to make the dream he has conjured become a reality, is an enduring part of who we are as a people.
We are like Bogart, cynical and jaded yet still yearning for a lost love. We are forever romantic fools for love, as was Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris”. We are like Pollyanna, always hoping for the glass half full and living to fight another day. And we are a lost generation, like James Dean, in that we are foundering and always searching to create our own unique identity, above and apart from that of the previous generation.
And we are, at times, like Harold Hill, con artists who must convince the world we are unique and can do the impossible. We may never succeed, but the dream never dies. That is who we are, defined by our past in films of Americana.