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Friday, 10 August 2012

It's a Big Country (1951) - Star of the month... Gene Kelly

'It's a Big Country' is a  1951 anthology film, comprised of eight individual segments celebrating the beauty and diversity of America.

Directed by Clarence Brown, Don Hartman, John Sturges, Richard Thorpe, Charles Vidor, Don Weis and William A. Wellman, the film is narrated by Louis Calhern.

The actors (referred to as citizens) include Leon Ames, Ethel Barrymore, Keefe  Brasselle, Gary Cooper, Nancy Davis, Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Janet Leigh, Sharon MacManus, Marjorie Main, Fredric March, George Murphy, William Powell, S.Z. Sakall, Lewis Stone, James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn.

I have structured this blog post into segments, according to how the film is structured, discussing each segment in turn.

Segment #1 - 

Whilst on a train to New York, New York, Mr. Stacey (played by Whitmore) meets a Professor (played by Powell), and tells him he loves America. The Professor asks "Which America?", and goes on to teach Mr. Stacey about the diversity of America. Mr. Stacey learns America is politically, religiously, and culturally diverse, and always evolving. The segment ends as Mr. Stacey walks into the dining cart, and meets an elderly woman (played by Elisabeth Risdon), who says she loves America. Mr. Stacey asks her "Which America?". Although the segment ends there, it is obvious Mr. Stacey will use this an opportunity to pass on the knowledge which he has just acquired.  This opening segment sets the scene for what is to come in subsequent segments.

Segment #2

Set in Boston, the city of great American tradition and Paul Revere. Mrs. Brian Patrick Riordan (played by Barrymore) travels to her local newspaper to meet with the Managing Editor, Mr. Callaghan (played by Murphy) to report she was not captured in the recent census. At 74 years of age, Mrs. Riordan is concerned she may not be alive for the next census in ten years time.  With the help of reporter Michael Fisher (played by Wynn), Mrs. Riordan is visited by a government official for inclusion in the census.

This segment focuses on the Irish American community of America, and also demonstrates the importance of participating in the census.

Ethel Barrymore delivers one of her finest performances in her brief appearance in this film.

Segment #3

We are then taken through a who's who of successful African Americans, athletes and entertainers including Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Eddie Anderson and Ethel Waters.

Gene Kelly as Icarus Xenophon
This segment is very different to the others, in that there is no storyline or plot. It is simply a patriotic narration with images of successful African Americans. Considering the degree of African-American segregation in the early 1950's, I would be very interested to have been a fly on the wall during initial screenings of this film to witness the audience reaction, particularly in the Southern states.

Segment #4

In the next segment we meet Hungarian American Stefan Szabo (played by Sakall) and his six daughters. Stefan has a prejudice against Greeks, which becomes an issue for his eldest daughter Rosa (played by Leigh), who has fallen in love with Greek American Icarus Xenophon (played by Kelly).

Janet Leigh as Rosa Szabo
This segment serves as a parable for immigrants, that they should leave any ancient grudges behind when they arrive in America. A message still relevant in today's society.

Everyone's favourite Hungarian American S.Z. Sakall is perfectly cast as Stefan Szabo. Even in a dramatic role, Sakall makes as laugh.

Segment #5

 Mrs. Wrenley (played by Marjorie Main), is visited by
Sgt. Maxie Klein (played by Keefe Brasselle)
a tour of the armed forces,  soldiers, sailors, marines and the airforce

Sgt. Maxie Klein (played by Brasselle) visits Mrs. Wrenley (played by Main), the  mother of his war buddy Jack, who was killed in action.

It is interesting seeing Marjorie Main in a serious dramatic role.

Segment #6

We travel deep in the heart of Texas, where we meet a cowboy named Texas (played by Cooper). In this very short segment, Texas talks about the state of Texas, and myth busts rumours and perceptions of the other 47 states. 

When watching this film, it's important to remember in 1951 there were only 48 states in the USA. In 1959, Alaska became the 49th state.

Segment #7

Rev. Adam Burch (played by Johnson) takes on a new congragation, and receives constructive feedback by a Church sexton (played by Stone). As a result of taking on this feedback, the Reverend becomes a greater pasteur.

Segment #8

Joseph Esposito (played by Bobby Hyatt) is told by his teacher, Miss Coleman (played by Davis) that he needs glasses. His strict Italian American father, Joe Esposito (played by March) refuses to believe his son needs glasses and opposes Miss Coleman's recommendation.

Closing remarks

Although the content of the eight segments are a little dated, not surprisingly the messages contained within each segment are still relevant in today's society of discrimination and segregation.

The only criticism I have on this film is the sugar coated endings to each segment are often unrealistic and difficult to believe, however I appreciate this is the intention of the filmmakers to convey the messages.

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