The United States of America: it's a big country, all right, all forty-eight states reaching from sea to shining sea and with such a diversity contained within its population. Here are a series of vignettes to remind us of what is great about America, and how that can mean so many different things to so many different people from all backgrounds. Take the first segment, where a talkative chap (James Whitmore) gets on a train carriage for a cross-country trip and finds a seat next to a gentleman (William Powell) who has his nose buried in a book. The first fellow insists on striking up a conversation, enthused by the sight of the scenery passing by the windows, about how fantastic America is. However, he is stopped in his tracks when the reader starts asking him which America he means...
This was a patriotic anthology movie designed to bring the nation together, though in effect it did nothing of the kind as hardly anybody was much interested in a civic lecture from out of Hollywood, and it was one of the major flops of its year. As time has gone by and the United States has proven itself less united than it might have liked to be, it was instructive to go back and see what the big idea was, a literally big idea as this MGM production sought to appeal to every part of the population, even if in effect it did nothing of the sort. Still, a noble failure can be more interesting than a noble success, though that was not quite the case here as each of the eight sections was more than a shade contrived, not to say schmaltzy and obvious, which could give the impression of being patronised.
That may well have been the motive for audiences staying away, no matter that there were some pretty sizeable talents involved in its manufacture, both behind and before the cameras. After Powell has bamboozled Whitmore, we launched into a teeth-squeaking item of treacle where Ethel Barrymore played an Irish-born widow who lived alone and never saw anyone, no friends or neighbours at all. She realises through a newspaper report that she has been missed off a recent census, and sets about trying to matter, the upshot being that once the journalists twig they make sure that she does, for every individual matters in the U.S.A., right? Again, you were thinking these thespians were not getting the acting workout that they were capable of, and it was clear the message was not being given the space to breathe.
And that feeling would last throughout the rest of the movie. For instance, Gene Kelly played a Greek (!) who falls in love with a Hungarian (Janet Leigh!) much to the prejudice of her father (professional Hungarian S.Z. Sakall), all so we can learn a lesson that love conquers all no matter what your ethnic background, though that fact that one of the most famous Irish-Americans in Hollywood was drafted in to essay a Mediterranean representation was bizarre, needless to say. Other segments were a chore to watch such was their overly earnest delivery, as a Jewish solider (Keefe Brasselle) proves his people are all right to the mother (Marjorie Main) of his killed in action buddy, or Van Johnson as a minister taught a lesson in humility when he realises his sermons designed to impress President Roosevelt are dull as ditchwater - not the most riveting ten minutes you'll see.
Gary Cooper had a bit of fun as a Texan cowboy setting us right about his home state (n.b. Cooper was from Montana), but it was a brief distraction before Fredric March played an Italian (complete with ice-a-da-cream-a accent) fretting that his son's new glasses make him look effeminate and thus threatens to throw hot soup over future First Lady Nancy Reagan, playing the boy's schoolteacher. Possibly the most interesting part was a tribute to African Americans done documentary style where their race was never mentioned, just their achievements, so the black officials, military men (and women), religious leaders, community notables and entertainers were string together in seconds-long clips, admirable that the filmmakers wished to include them, but perhaps not so much that they were integrated into the stories, and in a segment that would have been easily snipped out in the Southern theatres. Overall, you could see their heart was in the right place as the nineteen-fifties dawned in a "let’s make ourselves proud" sort of way, but as time has illustrated, it takes more than sentimentality and corny humour to bring a nation together, if it ever can be.