Thursday, May 6, 2010

MGM does anthologies too

I've blogged a couple of times about some of the anthology movies from the late 1940s and early 1950s that have shown up on the Fox Movie Channel. MGM made one around that time, too, and that movie -- It's a Big Country -- is on TCM tomorrow morning at 7:15 AM.

The movie opens on a train, where James Whitmore is talking about how proud he is to be a part of America. That is, until he's floored by a question from Professor William Powell: Which America? The good professor suggests that there are lots and lots of different aspects of America. And so, we get an anthology of quite a few different aspects of the American experience.

First up is Ethel Barrymore. She reads an article in the local newspaper that distresses her: apparently, the census counted everybody in America, but she was never counted. Won't the newspaper do something about that?
Next, in by far the weakest segment, stock footage is used to show the contributions blacks have made to American society.
This is followed by a sketch of Hungarian-American farmer S. Z. Sakall trying to raise his girls. The only thing he doesn't like is Greeks, and wouldn't you know, one of his daughters falls in love with Greek ice cream parlor owner... Gene Kelly (as if we don't get the point already, his character is named Icarus Xenophon)!
In another sketch about overcoming prejudice, Keefe Brasselle, whom MGM was presumably grooming for stardom, plays a Jewish veteran of the Korean War visiting the mother of a deceased friend (Marjorie Main).
Gary Cooper gets the funniest sketch, playing a typical Texan who's trying to dispel all of the stereotypes about Texas, while the whole time he's talking, those stereotypes are playing out right behind him.
Van Johnson is up next as a new minister who has the daunting task of giving a sermon at which the President will be in attendance.
Finally, Fredric March plays an Italian immigrant father who thinks his son will be seen as a weakling if he has to get glasses, despite the son's teacher (Nancy Davis) insisting upon the necessity of it.

It's a Big Country is an interesting, if uneven movie. The scenes range from the lousy -- it's pretty shocking that in trying to show how we should be more tolerant of black people, MGM couldn't actually be bothered to cast any black actors. The story with Keefe Brasselle isn't too good, either, and this is where the racial angle should have been explored: the military had been integrated by President Truman only a few years earlier, and having a black soldier talk about his dead white friend to the friend's mother would probably have been much better. However, prejudice is very well skewered in the Sakall/Kelly story. Everybody recognizes that Hungarian/Greek ethnic tension is silly; doesn't it logically follow that we shouldn't be prejudiced against those more obviously different from us? Gary Cooper once again reminds us that he really could do deadpan humor, and Ethel Barrymore gives her usual quite good performance. The movie is also helped by the fact that each segment was directed by a different one of MGM's better-known directors.

It's a Big Country is also a bit of a time capsule. The social upheaval of the 1960s makes a movie like this, with its almost boundless childlike optimism, one that would never get made today; it would be seen as even more maudlin, schmaltzy, and propagandistic than It's a Big Country was when it was released. The movie has been put out on DVD, but only as part of the TCM Vault Collection.

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