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Fourth of July Movies: Escapism During a Weird Year

Fourth of July movies: A few recommended titles that should help you temporarily escape current global madness

Two thousand and seventeen has been a weirder-than-usual year on the already pretty weird Planet Earth. Unsurprisingly, this Fourth of July, the day the United States celebrates its Declaration of Independence from Britain, has been an unusual one as well.

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Instead of fireworks, (at least some) people's attention has been turned to missiles – more specifically, a carefully timed North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile test indicating that Kim Jong-un could theoretically gain (or could already have?) the capacity to strike North America with nuclear weapons.

Then there were right-wing trolls & history-deficient Twitter users berating National Public Radio for tweeting the Declaration of Independence, 140 characters at a time. Besides, a few days ago the current U.S. president retweeted a video of himself body-slamming and choking a representation of CNN – courtesy of a gif originally created by a far-right Internet troll with a habit of anonymously posting racist texts. And not to mention reports about well-armed far-right nationalists and sympathizers showing up at Pennsylvania's Gettysburg National Military Park to fight – as it turned out, invisible – far-left anarchists.

All that along with the realization that “self-evident truths” have been replaced in some powerful and influential quarters by “alternative facts,” while “inalienable rights” – as the United States' slave-owning Founding Fathers themselves must have known – could prove to be either elusive or quite alienable indeed.

But weirdest of all is that as the U.S. approaches its 250th anniversary as an independent nation, its democratic institutions have been systematically attacked – and, in some instances, may have been compromised – by Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin and his hackers.

Now, if you want to escape from Kim, Putin, Trump, Internet trolls, far-right militias, far-left anarchists, et al., but you're not buddies with any E.T.'s while drugs and booze aren't your thing, there's always Turner Classic Movies. In the U.S. and Canada, TCM has been focusing on the American Experience, or rather, experiences, since yesterday, July 3 – ahem, 2017's Canada Day.

Apart from the customary Revolutionary War movies such as John Sturges' The Scarlet Coat (1954) and Guy Hamilton's The Devil's Disciple (1959); Bette Davis as the – by today's standards – unambitious Catherine the Great (in John Farrow's John Paul Jones); and Michael Curtiz's artificial, juvenile, overlong, and wildly popular Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), TCM has been presenting several must-see films – as in, they're too good and/or too historically/socially relevant to be missed.

On Canada Day, there were the non-Canadian-themed:

  • America America (1963), Elia Kazan's Oscar-nominated, three-hour-long homage to the Land of Dreams, beautifully shot in documentary style (courtesy of Haskell Wexler). Based on Kazan's own 1962 book – inspired by the real-life experiences of his determined uncle's voyage from Anatolia to New York City – America America was released a decade or so after the Oscar-winning filmmaker (Gentlemen's Agreement, 1947; On the Waterfront, 1954) and House Un-American Activities friendly witness helped to turn into nightmares the lives of numerous U.S. liberals and socialists. Stathis Giallelis stars as the English-speaking Greek-Anatolian emigrant wannabe, who, after meeting up with other English-speaking Turks, Greeks, and Armenians, finally arrives at Ellis Island – luckily for him, a couple of decades before the Immigration Act of 1924, which would all but close the door to people of his ethnicity.
  • George Stevens' comedy-drama I Remember Mama (1948), an enjoyable, if a tad overlong, nostalgic look at a family of San Francisco-based Norwegian immigrants led by the titular Mama, Best Actress Oscar nominee Irene Dunne – in top form, whether or not her accent sounds Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or Slovakian. DeWitt Bodeen (Cat People) adapted John Van Druten's 1944 play – itself based on Kathryn Forbes' novel Mama's Bank Account – which had starred veteran Austrian-born actress Mady Christians (the 1927 Grand Hotel, Escapade) on Broadway. As a tragic aside, Christians would suffer a fatal stroke at age 59 in 1951, the year after her American career came to an abrupt halt following accusations that she was a communist sympathizer. Regarding TCM's presentation of I Remember Mama, there's one important complaint: the film can't be fully enjoyed because TCM's print is old, faded, and too dark. It's time to restore – from a 35mm negative, if available – one of the best-liked American movies of the 1940s.
  • Jan Troell's incisive, socially conscious family drama The Emigrants (1971) is one of the precious few non-English-language movies to have been nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award – curiously, in the same year that its sequel, The New Land (1972), was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The Emigrants is a long film – over three hours in its original form – but it's well worth a look; unlike Elia Kazan's America America, which comes across as rather phony, Troell's film truly feels like a document – magisterially shot by the director himself – of people fleeing what some xenophobic pundit has referred to as “failing countries” in their search for a better life. Unfortunately, Turner Classic Movies has presented the film's shortened, dubbed version, which is truly a shame, even if the speaking voices do belong to Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, who lead a first-rate cast. Time for TCM to unearth the unedited Swedish-language original.

On July 4th proper, TCM's daytime presentations included the following:

  • Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Puerto Rican friends singing and dancing to the beat of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's “America” – Land of Plenty or Land of Prejudice? – in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' multiple Oscar winner West Wide Story (1961). Natalie Wood (singing voice courtesy of Marni Nixon) and Richard Beymer (singing voice courtesy of Jimmy Bryant) are the Juliet and Romeo leads in this generally effective, though at times excessively stylized, version of the Broadway musical hit.
  • Backwoodsman Howard Keel and nightingale-voiced Jane Powell are at odds and in love with each other in Stanley Donen's vibrant Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Keel's six brothers' kidnapping six young women – they want to get laid, or, in 1950s Hollywood parlance, get married – doesn't help matters any. Warning: There are sensitive souls who are actually offended by this highly enjoyable romp; after all, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers does provide a happy ending to both kidnappers and kidnappees. Having said that, no one should be afraid that their politically correct sensibilities will be damaged by Michael Kidd's sensational choreography or George J. Folsey's gorgeous color cinematography.
  • A pleasant, nostalgic, musicalized look at the Great American Pastime in the days long before online porn (in all fairness, the Great Global Pastime), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) star Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, a fully dry and fully dressed Esther Williams, and scene-stealer Betty Garrett. Busby Berkeley (Gold Diggers of 1935, The Gang's All Here) directed, somewhat surprisingly with little to show in terms of pyrotechnics during the musical numbers.
         
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