The character of a country...
0 comment Friday, June 20, 2014 |
A few lines from old movies can speak volumes. I find a lot of inspiration in the vanished America of the classic movies, especially in these times in which it is so easy to become disillusioned with my fellow man.
I recently saw the Frank Capra movie, 'Meet John Doe.' I've seen it many times; it's a favorite, as are many of Capra's films. Some of the dialogue particularly seemed to resonate in view of what is befalling our country lately.
For instance, take these lines from John Doe's speech:
''They've started a lot of talk about free people going soft�that we can't take it. That's a lot of hooey! . . . A free people can beat the world at anything, from war to tiddle-de-winks, if we all pull in the same direction!
I know a lot of you are saying "What can I do? I'm just a little punk. I don't count." Well, you're dead wrong! The little punks have always counted because in the long run the character of a country is the sum total of the character of its little punks."
Connell: Yessir, I'm a sucker for this country.
I'm a sucker for the Star-Spangled Banner - and I'm a sucker for this country.
I like what we got here! I like it!
A guy can say what he wants -- and do what he wants - without having a bayonet shoved through his belly.
Now, that's all right, isn't it?
John Doe: You betcha.
Connell: All right. And we don't want anybody coming around and changing it, do we?
John: No, sir.
Connell: No, sir. And when they do, I get mad! I get b-boiling mad! And right now, John, I'm sizzling!
I get mad for a lot of other guys besides myself -- I get mad for a guy named Washington! And a guy
named Jefferson -- and Lincoln! Lighthouses, John! Lighthouses, in a foggy world! You know what I mean?
John: Yeah, you bet!
And in a later scene: at 'evil capitalist' D.B. Norton's home:
Norton: These are daring times, Mr. Barrington. We're coming to a New Order of things.
And in the last scene - the final line of dialogue is spoken by newspaperman Connell. His words:
There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that. Come on, Colonel.'
And recently I also happened to catch part of a 1943 movie titled The Human Comedy, based on the William Saroyan work of the same name. The Human Comedy, like many of the movies of that era, reflected an idyllic, small-town America: it was a slower-paced America, an America of neighborliness and decency, an America which was still patriotic and unapologetic about it. That America was also Christian and unashamed of it.
I'm amazed at how few people have seen the classic old movies like this one; lots of people have seen 'Gone With the Wind' or 'Casablanca' but not the more obscure films. In our age, with so much emphasis on style rather than on content, people prefer the newer movies which are technically superior, flashier, louder, cruder, more over-the-top. There's not much of an audience, it seems, for the old movies which were gentler, subtler, slower-paced.
I've seen 'The Human Comedy' before; I've been an old-movie fan since my childhood, when I first saw many of the real classics on TV. During my growing-up years, we read some Saroyan in 9th-grade English class, and I enjoyed his writing. Some English teachers criticized his writing style for its artificiality, for its kind of artificial demotic quality, as of an 'artist' trying to write like an ordinary Joe. His dialogue seems now to be a little unnatural, not like the real speech of real people. But be that as it may, I am always touched by this movie.
Another rather quirky movie based on Saroyan's work is The Time of Your Life, from 1948. Like 'The Human Comedy, rather than being a traditionally structured movie, it is a series of vignettes, in which the characters are the story, and the stylized dialogue makes the movies more enjoyable and memorable, to me. I recommend them to anyone who likes old movies, or is open-minded and patient enough to try them.
When we see these movies, based on Saroyan's works, today, they seem to embody something distinctively American, and in an increasingly deracinated and cosmopolitan world, this makes these movies seem quaint. Obviously some of the commenters at found the movies 'corny', sentimental, cloying, excessively patriotic, judging by the discussion there. I confess I didn't read all the comments; reading those kinds of complaints from the usual crowd of jaundice-eyed leftists and cynical, jaded youngsters who grew up in another America is a depressing way to spend time. So I chose not to read all of it; I got the general idea from a scan of the comments.
Saroyan himself was apparently a leftist, and later in his life, in 1961,he wrote:
I am an estranged man, said the liar: estranged from myself, from my family, my fellow man, my country, my world, my time, and my culture. I am not estranged from God, although I am a disbeliever in everything about God excepting God indefinable, inside all and careless of all."
So Saroyan, if he had lived to see this day, might have more in common with those leftists who sneer at the 'sentimentality' and 'propaganda' in his 1940s films. But if he was estranged and bitter when he wrote those earlier works, it did not show. The movies reflect a love for America and a faith in the American spirit and in the American people. That is what I find so moving in this day when even many 'conservatives' are 'estranged' from all those corny old values.
One little vignette in The Human Comedy which strikes me now is the scene in which Van Johnson, as 'Marcus McCaulay' is on a train with his fellow soldiers, as they begin the first leg of their long journey to the European front, presumably. A fellow soldier asks him to lead them all in an 'old church song, like the ones we all sang when we were kids'. Someone calls out for 'Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.' As the camera pans across the faces of many of the young soldiers, singing this hymn, it's very moving. It may be that you have to be a Christian, and familiar with this hymn, for it to be evocative. But I would think that anyone could be touched by that scene. Would any such scene be included in any modern movie? No; it might offend a stray atheist or agnostic or Moslem or Zoroastrian. Even if no one saw fit to get offended, it would be thought too 'corny.' And these days, probably fewer people, especially among the younger generation, know a song like 'Leaning'. But in 1943 most Americans were familiar with it, at least, those of a Christian background, which meant most people. And even Catholics, who did not sing these hymns in Church then, were familiar with them, or had heard them. But now we no longer have such commonalities, and a basic culture, assumed among all Americans, that brings us together. We are now 'diverse' and that comes at the cost of unity.
There are no more movies of this kind being made; any attempt at wholesome, pro-American movies of this kind seems fake and insincere in the cynical era we live in. Every so often someone will recommend a movie to me which supposedly celebrates the 'old values' and I find it to be empty and soulless. The spirit that animated the old movies of this type no longer exists, not in Hollywood, at any rate.
Another movie from the same era which I recently saw was Frank Capra's 'Meet John Doe', from 1941. Like the Saroyan stories, Capra's movies are nowadays accused of being over-sentimental, corny, and propagandistic, (although the leftists object less to Capra's populist messages, which are seen as anti-capitalist). But Capra, like Saroyan, seems to have truly loved America and the common American people. The leftists, many of whom apparently like 'John Doe' because of its anti-'fascist', anti-capitalist message, are no longer the champions of the Little Guy, who was always the hero of Capra's movies. Liberals and Democrats may talk the populist talk, but they are as much the creatures of moneyed special interests and big corporations who fund their leftist crusades as are the GOP. So the 'little guy', the common man who was still valued in the days when Capra and Saroyan were doing their best work, has no champion in this era of celebrities and globalist billionaires and aggressive 'victims'. The common man is persona non grata in Hollywood movies now just as in the Beltway.
The common man is abandoned.
The patriotism of the Depression and WWII eras was based on loyalty to the American past as well as love for and faith in one's fellow Americans. Now, what passes as 'patriotism' for many, especially Republicans, is mere loyalty to the President or to the GOP, and supporting the 'War on Terror' unconditionally. Americans in general tend to identify more with a political party or other group and less with the American people in general. There is much more distrust among Americans than there was when I was a child, and certainly more than in the 1930s and 1940s, when Capra was making most of his movies.
As I'm fond of saying here, the past is another country, and each generation seems to be further and further removed from the America of the 1940s, or even the America I grew up in. As long as we continue to trade our commonality and our shared past and heritage for 'diversity', America will increasingly be a place filled with people who are estranged from their past and their country, just as William Saroyan said he was, ironically. And maybe it's ironic -- or maybe not -- that Saroyan was something of an early proponent of 'diversity' and multiculturalism, being a hyphenated 'Armenian-American.' It is said that his remains were divided between Armenia and America. Even in death, he was not fully devoted to America. Maybe such divided loyalties were the reason for his eventual complete estrangement and bitterness.
Sadly, maybe he was more symbolic of the 'new America' , the America that was yet to come when he wrote his stories, than he realized. His America of the common man, and Capra's America in which 'the little punks always counted', are seemingly gone, except perhaps in a few isolated places where the larger, more chaotic world has not yet forced its way in.
In a world which is increasinly foggy and in which the dark seems to be gathering, we need those 'lighthouses', the great men and ideals of our past, more than ever, and we also need the 'little punks' to do their part. 'John Doe' spoke the truth when he said that 'the character of a country is the sum total of the character of its little punks.' We still have the potential, in the character of the best of our people, to recover much of what was lost, if we only know where to look for it.

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