See previous post discussing TCM’s four Independence Day movies – John Paul Jones, 1776, The Devil’s Disciple, and The Scarlet Coat – set around the time of the American Revolutionary War: “4th of July Movies: From Our Dystopian Present to Complex American Revolutionary War Figures.”
More Independence Day movies: All-white, all-Iowan ‘The Music Man’
Produced and directed by Morton DaCosta, and adapted by Marion Hargrove from Meredith Willson’s Tony Award-winning, DaCosta-directed stage hit, Warner Bros.’ hugely successful movie version of The Music Man (1962) relates the tale of an entrepreneurial con man (Robert Preston, reprising his Tony-winning role) out to make an easy buck in small-town Iowa by pretending to be a marching band instructor. And then Marian the librarian (Shirley Jones) and a miracle happen.
Mostly an endless compendium of artificial storytelling, repetitive musical numbers, and theatrical histrionics, The Music Man does have one major plus: the climactic ending (see further below), featuring a magically shiny marching band parading through the streets of Hicksville, ahem, River City, Iowa.
The four-minute sequence is undeniably great cinema, and surely one of the most exhilarating finales in motion picture history. Just never mind the editing oddity of the Shirley Jones/Robert Preston reunion, when the street where Jones is seen running inexplicably – or, again, magically – becomes an uninterrupted sidewalk in the next scene.
Ocean of white faces + appealing Shirley Jones
Something else noteworthy about The Music Man is that seemingly everybody on screen is white. Of course, that’s the way things were in just about any Upper Midwestern small town in the early 20th century; but in the early 21st century, when history/facts must be refashioned to please (ever well-intentioned) ideologues, and ethnic diversity, no matter how disconnected from reality, simply must be seen on big and small American screens, The Music Man’s ocean of white faces does look odd.
One of these white faces, in particular, also looks awful pretty: that’s Shirley Jones (Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for Elmer Gantry, 1960), an appealing, talented actress whose role as River City’s stuffy librarian turned stylish beauty should have been both larger and meatier.
Oscar love & snub + ‘The Music Man’ talent
Curiously, despite its six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (Ray Heindorf was the sole winner, for Best Adapted Musical Score), The Music Man failed to be shortlisted in the directing, acting, and writing categories.
Just as unusual: two other 1962 Best Picture nominees – Lewis Milestone’s Mutiny on the Bounty remake and Andrew Marton, Ken Annakin, and Bernhard Wicki’s all-star World War II drama The Longest Day – were also bypassed in those key categories.
And here is a little more information about The Music Man, its setting, and its talent:
- Meredith Willson was born in Mason City, located on the Winnebago River and a source of inspiration for some of the characters found in The Music Man’s fictional River City. Not coincidentally, “River City” happens to be Mason City’s nickname.
- The Music Man was one of Broadway director Morton DaCosta’s three feature films; the other two were Best Picture Oscar nominee Auntie Mame (1958) and Island of Love (1963). Robert Preston also stars in Island of Love; and coincidentally, he would be seen opposite Lucille Ball in Mame (1974), from the Broadway musical based on Auntie Mame.
- The Music Man screenwriter Marion Hargrove, best known for the World War II-era bestseller See Here Private Hargrove (made into a 1944 MGM movie with Robert Walker and Donna Reed), wrote only a handful of screenplays in the late 1950s/early 1960s (e.g., Cash McCall, 40 Pounds of Trouble).
- The little boy Ronny Howard grew into Ron Howard, whose directorial credits include Splash, Cocoon, Parenthood, Apollo 13 (Best Picture Oscar nominee, 1995), A Beautiful Mind (Best Picture and Best Director winner, 2001), The Da Vinci Code, and Frost/Nixon (Best Picture and Best Director nominee, 2008).
- In movies from the dawn of the sound era to the end of the 1930s (e.g., Sally, Bed of Roses), Pert Kelton, Marian the librarian’s widowed Irish mother on Broadway and in Hollywood, was the first actress to play The Honeymooners’ Alice Kramden in comedy sketches on the variety TV show Cavalcade of Stars. Audrey Meadows replaced Kelton when The Honeymooners was turned into a series in 1955.
- Capable and personable dancer/actor Timmy Everett, River City’s singularly enthusiastic marching band drum major and a Theater World Award recipient for his performance as the tragic Sammy Goldenbaum in William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Lee Kinsolving [1938–1974] in Delbert Mann’s 1960 movie version), died at age 38 in March 1977 in New York City, after suffering a heart attack in his sleep.
‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’: Focus on Joan Leslie
One of the most intolerably phony musicals ever made, Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) was also one of the biggest box office hits of the 1940s, earning James Cagney, as all-American entertainer George M. Cohan, an underserved Best Actor Oscar – in a year that had veteran Ronald Colman delivering a magnificent performance as an amorous amnesiac in Mervyn LeRoy’s Random Harvest.
Seven years later, Cagney would do what’s probably the best work of his career as an all-American psychopathic murderer with a mommy fixation in Raoul Walsh’s crime thriller White Heat. It goes without saying that he was left Oscar nominationless. Adding insult to injury, John Wayne received enough votes to be shortlisted in the Best Actor category for Allan Dwan’s asinine flag-waver Sands of Iwo Jima.
In Yankee Doodle Dandy, much more pleasant to watch than James Cagney is Joan Leslie as his romantic interest. A gorgeous and capable actress, Leslie was badly misused at Warner Bros., oftentimes cast as insipid sweet young things when she was at her best in complex roles such as that of Ida Lupino’s deceptively “nice” younger sister in Vincent Sherman’s The Hard Way (also 1942).
George M. Cohan, by the way, unpatriotically came to this world on July 3, not, as seen in the film, July 4. More patriotic were Eva Marie Saint (Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for On the Waterfront, 1954) and – all red, white, and blue in Subiaco, Italy – Gina Lollobrigida (Bread Love and Dreams, Beat the Devil). The former is turning 95 today; the latter is turning 92.
‘Ah, Wilderness!’: Unusually lighthearted Eugene O’Neill
Born on the 3rd of July George M. Cohan starred as the patriarch of a New England family at the turn of the 20th century in the 4th of July-set Ah, Wilderness!, which opened on Oct. 2, 1933, at the Guild Theatre on Broadway. “Everyman” Will Rogers replaced Cohan when the play went on tour.
Somewhat surprisingly, the author of this sentimental slice of “Americana” was none other than Eugene O’Neill, he of the heavy-duty dramas Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, and, later on, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Yet lighthearted stuff apparently came easy to O’Neill. He is supposed to have written Ah, Wilderness! – “a comedy of recollection in three acts” – over the course of one month.
Critics were generally impressed, with the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson, for one, opining, “As the writer of comedy[,] Mr. O’Neill has a capacity for tenderness that most of us never suspected.”
O’Neill’s Hollywood home + ‘sensitive & moving’ Eric Linden
Also praised was MGM’s Clarence Brown-directed 1935 movie version – the studio’s third Eugene O’Neill adaptation in five years, following the Irving G. Thalberg-produced Anna Christie (1930, also directed by Brown) and Strange Interlude (1932, directed by Robert Z. Leonard).
Cast in the old Cohan/Rogers role – the latter had become a Fox star – was Best Actor Academy Award winner Lionel Barrymore (A Free Soul, for the period 1930–1931). As his cute but troubled adolescent son, Eric Linden delivered, in the words of the New York Times’ Andre Sennwald, “the most sensitive and moving performance he has ever given on the screen.”
Other Ah Wilderness! cast members include another Best Actor Academy Award winner, Wallace Beery (The Champ, 1931–1932; officially tied with Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde); a pre-stardom, pre-Andy Hardy Mickey Rooney; future Andy Hardy sis Cecilia Parker; peppy second lead Frank Albertson; and scene-stealers and future Best Supporting Actress nominees Aline MacMahon (Dragon Seed, 1944) and Spring Byington (You Can’t Take It with You, 1938).
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, a musical remake, Summer Holiday, was released by MGM in 1948. In the cast: Mickey Rooney (in the old Eric Linden role), Gloria DeHaven, Walter Huston, Frank Morgan, Jackie Jenkins (in the old Rooney role), Marilyn Maxwell, and Agnes Moorehead.
Independence Day movies’ grand finale
And what better way to end one’s marathon of American Independence Day movies than by watching a 1939 release celebrating … the greatness of the British Empire?
Directed and produced by Hungarian-born talent, respectively, Zoltan Korda and Alexander Korda, The Four Feathers is a British-made exemplar of English-language movies of the mid-to-late 1930s – along with the Kordas’ Sanders of the River and The Drum, and Hollywood’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Gunga Din, and Beau Geste – exalting British imperialism. Needless to say, that’s the good kind of domination and exploitation, as opposed to the bad kind espoused by the Germans of the period.
Shot in Technicolor, the mid-1890s-set The Four Feathers features John Clements (instead of the originally announced Robert Donat) as a British officer who, accused of being a coward for having resigned his post as he was about to go fight in the Mahdist War in North Africa, strives to regain his self-respect and social standing by proving to his peers, family, and fiancée (June Duprez) that he’s no wuss.
How best to achieve that honorable goal than by traveling to Egypt to show the local bloodthirsty Muslim darkies that no one could beat strong-willed white Christian Europeans, especially those of the English-speaking variety?
Putting things in historical perspective, The Four Feathers and its ideals – jingoistic, imperialistic, racist, sexist (you’re a man only if you’re willing to die for the Fatherland) – came out right as Britain was about to be nearly sunk by the Nazis.
To this day, the Kordas’ – admittedly, great-looking – film is considered the most rousing of the various movie versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel.
Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Lothar Mendes, and Ernest B. Schoedsack, a silent 1929 Hollywood adaptation of The Four Feathers starred Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, Clive Brook, and William Powell. The most recent version, released in 2002, was directed by Shekhar Kapur and starred Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson, and Wes Bentley.
One more thing about TCM’s series of Independence Day movies:
The short The Declaration of Independence (1938) was directed by early silent film leading man Crane Wilbur, whose movie career – as actor (The Perils of Pauline, The Heart of Maryland), director (The Devil on Horseback, Outside the Wall), and writer (Women’s Prison, The Bat) – spanned half a century.
Independence Day movies: Langston Hughes gets final word
And the last word in this two-part post about TCM’s Independence Day movies and their connection to personal, national, and international politics goes to Langston Hughes.
Below is the final verse of his 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again,” found in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Replace “America” with the country of your choice and we have ourselves a global movement.
See below The Music Man’s exuberant grand finale with Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Timmy Everett, Susan Luckey, et al. parading through the streets of River City to the sound of 76 trombones and 110 cornets. And further below is the list of TCM’s Independence Day movies.
Independence Day movies’: TCM July 4 schedule (EDT)
1:45 PM THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (1938). Director: Crane Wilbur. Cast: John Litel. C-17m.
2:15 PM JOHN PAUL JONES (1959). Director: John Farrow. Cast:Robert Stack. Marisa Pavan. Charles Coburn. Bette Davis. Macdonald Carey. Jean-Pierre Aumont. David Farrar. Peter Cushing. Thomas Gomez. C-126m.
4:30 PM THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE (1959). Director: Guy Hamilton. Cast:Burt Lancaster. Kirk Douglas. Laurence Olivier. Janette Scott. Eva Le Gallienne. Harry Andrews. George Rose. Basil Sydney. Mervyn Johns. B&W-83m.
8:00 PM YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942). Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: James Cagney. Joan Leslie. Walter Huston. Rosemary DeCamp. B&W-126m.
10:15 PM 1776 (1972). Director: Peter H. Hunt. Cast: William Daniels. Howard Da Silva. Ken Howard. David Madden. John Cullum. Blythe Danner. C-165m.
1:15 AM THE MUSIC MAN (1962). Director: Morton DaCosta. Cast: Robert Preston. Shirley Jones. Buddy Hackett. Hermione Gingold. Paul Ford. Timmy Everett. Pert Kelton. Susan Luckey. Harry Hickox. Mary Wickes. Ron Howard. C-151m.
4:00 AM AH WILDERNESS! (1935). Director: Clarence Brown. Cast: Wallace Beery. Eric Linden. Lionel Barrymore. Aline MacMahon. Cecilia Parker. Mickey Rooney. Frank Albertson. Spring Byington. Charley Grapewin. Edward J. Nugent. Bonita Granville. B&W-98m.
6:00 AM THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939). Director: Zoltan Korda. Cast: John Clements. Ralph Richardson. C. Aubrey Smith. June Duprez. Donald Gray. C-115m.
Verse from Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” via poets.org.
Image of Robert Preston and Shirley Jones in The Music Man, one of TCM’s Independence Day movies: Warner Bros.
Joan Leslie and James Cagney Yankee Doodle Dandy image: Warner Bros.
C. Aubrey Smith The Four Feathers 1939 image: London Film / United Artists.
“Independence Day Movies: All-White All-Iowan Marching Band + Rousing & Racist British Imperialism Salute” last updated in July 2019.