Thursday, July 4, 2019

The American Spirit - 25 Films that Capture Our Love for America

Today is America's birthday, the day we celebrate our great nation's declaration of independence. We have so many reasons to be proud of America and one of the greatest treasures is growing up with such a rich history and culture, a culture so unique in itself and yet made up of so many other cultures and their traditions. 

So, to celebrate our love for our country, we put together a list of 25 favorite classics that encapsulate some of the things that we cherish the most about America - the beautiful parks, the vast size of our country, its rich history, the creative entrepreneurial go-getting spirit of its people, the rich variety of citizens, our freedom, and of course, the small towns that are the backbone of America. 

The films are listed in order of their plot's time setting...or at least, the closest decade we could squeeze them into. 

Plymouth Adventure ( 1952 )
Spencer Tracy, Gene Tierney, Leo Genn, Van Johnson

The story of the Mayflower and the first settlers at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Hollywood likes to embellish history so this film was quite a mix of fantasy and fact - supposedly the captain of the Mayflower was in love with one of the passengers and was initially willing to dump his shipload of passengers in a port where they had little chance of survival. But look, all turned out well anyway!

Johnny Tremain ( 1957 )
Hal Stalmaster, Richard Beymer, Luana Patten, Walter Sande, Sebastian Cabot

Walt Disney's engaging retelling of a classic Esther Forbes children's novel about a young silversmith who witnesses events that, although apparently insignificant, will become the seeds to spark the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

How the West Was Won ( 1962 )
James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda, Agnes Moorehead, Carolyn Jones

This nearly three-hour-long epic spans decades in the history of Westward expansion and features just about every big-name actor in Hollywood ( "24 Great Stars" the posters declare ). Three directors ( John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall ) shared the responsibility of covering such vast terrain and the result is magnificent. The wagon trains heading west, the railroad empire of the 1860s, the Civil War, the rise of the Mississippi riverboat gamblers and the early days of San Francisco are all glorious 70mm Cinerama!

Gone with the Wind ( 1939 ) 

Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell

And speaking of epics.....Margaret Mitchell's excellent novel about the glory days of the South and the destruction of it through the Civil War was emblazoned on the screen in an adaptation that will never be equaled. You do not have to be a Southerner or even take one foot in the South to appreciate its unique atmosphere and the lifestyle of its people.  America's history would not be as special as it is if it were not for the great territorial divides in our country: the North, the South, the East, the West, all of which have a long history in themselves.
The Harvey Girls ( 1946 ) 
Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, John Hodiak, Virginia O'Brien, Preston Foster, Marjorie Main

After the Civil War, everyone was in a rage to head west either to claim land to settle or to strike it rich in gold. Fred Harvey was the smart man who knew that all these people would need a place to eat when they got there and so he started the famous Harvey chain of restaurants. This fun MGM musical tells the story of a band of intrepid waitresses at one of these restaurants back in the day. The carefree spirit of the film makes you want to board the Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe and enjoy the wonders of the West yourself. 

Jesse James ( 1939 ) 
Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly, Randolph Scott, Henry Hull.

This movie - filmed in beautiful Technicolor - really white-washed the life of the famous outlaw and made him out to be a Robin Hood-like hero who just didn't know where to draw the line. It was filmed on location in Missouri and the scenes that take place in the woodlands really capture the beauty of our nation's parks. Henry Hull, as a newspaper publisher, enjoyed his right of "freedom of the press" and would speak about any issue that came to his mind, liberally peppering it with "dang it!"s.

Show Boat ( 1951 )
Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ava Gardner, Joe E. Brown

Another colorful MGM musical, this time celebrating the Mississippi riverboats of the South and the people who entertained onboard them....showboat folk. When William Warfield bellows "Ol' Man River" you cannot help but feel a great swell in your heart for the mighty Mississippi that keeps on "rollin' along". 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ( 1939 )
Mickey Rooney, Rex Ingram, Walter Connolly

There is something about the films of the 1930s that are so satisfying to watch and the ones that were set in small-town America are particularly engaging. This classic - based on Mark Twain's famous novel - was a remake of an earlier film starring Jackie Coogan. Mickey Rooney was perfectly cast as the mischievous Huck Finn. 

Annie Get Your Gun ( 1950 )
Betty Hutton, Howard Keel, Louis Calhern, Keenan Wynn

Buffalo Bill's Wild West show toured the world for nearly 30 years ( 1883-1917 ) showcasing feats of sharpshooting skill and horsemanship. It was like a circus celebrating the West and one of its biggest celebrities was Annie Oakley. This MGM musical ( based upon the Broadway show ) gives us a taste of what it would have been like to have been in the audience witnessing such a show - the thrill of the Wild West combined with the pageantry of a circus. Mark Twain once commented, "It is often said on the other side of the water that none of the exhibitions which we send to England are purely and distinctly American. If you will take the Wild West show over there you can remove that reproach." There is certainly nothing so American as a Wild West show!

Meet Me in St. Louis ( 1944 )
Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor, Tom Drake, Lucille Bremer

But a fair, whether it be a state fair or a world's fair, oozes with American charm, too. In Meet Me in St. Louis it isn't so much the fair ( we barely get a glimpse of it ) that gives this film its stamp of Americana but the setting - St. Louis at the turn-of-the-century. It was the age of trolleys, player pianos, corsets, white pinafores, and dandies wearing straw hats. What a wonderful era! 
Ah, Wilderness! ( 1933 )
Eric Linden, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, 

Eugene O'Neill's classic play about a young man and his coming-of-age in turn-of-the-century America was brought to the screen in this marvelous MGM adaptation directed by Clarence Brown. It's a sentimental tale that is set in a small midwestern town complete with a bandstand, a lover's bridge, pool hall, church, and town hall. It is Andy Hardy at the turn-of-the-century ( with practically the same cast )....I think that's why we like it so much. It is so wholesome. 

Pollyanna ( 1960 )
Hayley Mills, Richard Egan, Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead

Speaking of won't find a more goody-two-shoes character than Pollyanna or a more perfect town than Beldingsville, Vermont. This classic, based on the 1913 novel of the same name, takes place during the course of one summer. The town picnic scene was always our favorite because - in spite of the great homecoming we have in our neighborhood - it pales in comparison to the Beldingsville park setting with its Japanese lanterns on display, the great "old lady" community band, and the giant piles of corn-on-the-cob and watermelon being served. Walt Disney made so many wonderful films that celebrated his love for America. 

The Late George Apley ( 1947 )
Ronald Colman, Edna Best, Richard Haydn, Peggy Cummins, Richard Ney

The Bostonians. They are as a nation onto themselves and this movie - set during the 1910s and based on the novel by John Marquand - wittily makes absurdities over the feeling of pride some of these people have in being born Bostonian and bred Bostonian. It is another great film that captures a slice of America lost in time. 

The Music Man ( 1960 )
Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Ronald Howard, Paul Ford

The small town of Madison, Iowa is the setting of one of the most famous American musicals ever made. The play's writer and composer, Meredith Wilson, lovingly made fun of the small town that he grew up in and he struck a chord with his audience because so many of us could relate to the people and incidents in the story - the comical mayor and his wife, the town shyster, the pretty librarian, and townfolk of all shapes and sizes. 

Yankee Doodle Dandy ( 1942 )
James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney

All of those famous songs that we associate with America were written Irishman! But as the lyrics to Robert and Richard Sherman's "I'll Always be Irish" so aptly put it, "I'll always be Irish, 'cause that's how I began. I'll always be Irish, I'll say that to any man. And when I'm an American, I'll be a good one, too.I'll be truly as American as Irish stew!" That's what makes America so great. So long as they love this nation, the moment an immigrant steps foot in America they are as truly American as anyone else in the land. George M. Cohen was one of the greatest songwriters our country ever had and James Cagney ( an Irish-American himself ) brilliantly played him in this musical classic. 

Giant ( 1956 )
Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Mercedes McCambridge

Like the Bostonians, Texans like to celebrate their own history, too. Their "country", as they put it, is as great as any nation. George Stevens epic, based on Edna Ferber's novel, spans 40 years and inspires a love for Texas in all of us.  

Some Like it Hot ( 1959 )
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Joe E. Brown

The era of the bootleggers was not one of fun and games, yet Billy Wilder took such a setting and made it a belly-laughing comedy. Some Like it Hot not only celebrates the era of gangsters but also the birth of the Florida tourist boom and the days of the sprawling Floridian hotels ( even though the one featured in the movie happens to be located in southern California ). 

The Andy Hardy Series
Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Fay Holden, Cecilia Parker

Andy Hardy is as all-American as homemade apple pie and this delightful series, which spanned sixteen films, features everything we love about small-town America. The corner drugstore, the town picnic, the school prom, you'll find it all in Andy Hardy. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, adored the series and used it as a launchpad for many starlets including Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Donna Reed, and Esther Williams. 

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek ( 1944 )
Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton, William Demarest, Diana Lynn

Preston Sturges made some of the most delightful comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and most of them were very patriotic in his own way. This one was one of Sturge's best and is a Fourth of July favorite of ours. It tells the story of a young woman who wants to "kiss the boys goodbye" on their way to the front and finds herself pregnant after a wild night in town! Being kind to the soldiers has its limits. 

Since You Went Away ( 1944 )
Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Robert Walker

There were so many excellent war films made right in the midst of the war that focused on the homefront ( e.g. The Best Years of Our Lives, The Human Comedy ) but Since You Went Away was one of the best to capture the emotions that spouses and children felt for the soldiers who went away to Europe. If you want to watch a tear-inducing drama that will inspire you to stand up and recite the pledge of allegiance than this is the picture to see. 

State Fair ( 1945 ) 
Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain, Dick Haymes, Vivian Blaine.

A state fair! County fairs have their thrills but state fairs are so much grander. This classic Fox musical captures the thrill of going to a fair, the excitement of the mid-way and the people one meets there and the disillusions that may come the day after. 

The Greatest Show on Earth ( 1956 )
Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Carolyn Jones

And circuses! Who can pass up a circus! Unfortunately, due to Ringling Brothers' Barnum and Bailey Circus closing, many children now are not able to look back on fond memories of going to see a circus, so they'll just have to be satisfied watching films like this one and trying to imagine what the experience was like. Cecil B. DeMille does everything on a big scale and The Greatest Show on Earth is no exception. It's a magnificent film and he captured on film a slice of an era in America's history that will never come around again. 

Bye Bye Birdie ( 1963 )
Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Ann-Margaret, Bobby Rydell, Paul Lynde

Another great musical comedy that paints a pretty picture of small-town America. The era is now the 1960s and the theme is about rock-and-roll heartthrobs and the effect they have on "innocent" teenage gals, but the characters in the film are timeless. 
The Reluctant Astronaut ( 1967 ) 
Don Knotts, Joan Freeman, Leslie Nielson, Arthur O'Connell

The Andy Griffith Show captured small-town America on the small screen and, on the big screen, the Don Knotts comedies did the least, we've always thought so. The Universal backlot, home to the Munsters, the Hardy's, and so many television families, was Sweetwater, Kansas, the fictional town in The Reluctant Astronaut. Knotts, as Royal Fleming, becomes the local hero when he is shot up into outer space. 


  1. Oh I love Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Music Man (1960)! They are two of my all time favorites. I saw part of Bye Bye Birdie (1963) once, and I really want to see the rest of it some time.

  2. This is a wonderful collection of Patriotic/Americana films!

    I love many of the ones you have chosen- including: The Andy Hardy Series, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Music Man, Pollyanna, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!

    I'm also curious about many others you mentioned... I'll be certain to watch the next time they are shown on TCM!

    Thank you so much for this wonderful list!

    Happy 4th of July holiday weekend! God Bless America!!!

    Blessings, Net

  3. How nice to see two Disney pics on your list: the classic Pollyanna and the underrated Johnny Tremain. The Late George Apley is a great pic, too. It's a delightful film that doesn't get the recognition it deserves. This was a fabulous idea for an Independence Day post on movies!

  4. A well thought out and very interesting list of some important and entertainment films.

  5. Interesting how the Reluctant Astronaut came out two years before the moon landing!

  6. I love Bye Bye Birdie! I never tire of watching it. The great Dick van Dyke, Janet Leigh at maybe her sexiest (her dance in that fabulous yellow dress), the sweet-and-sexy Ann-Margret, and of course the hilarious Paul Lynde! Also Maureen Stapleton as van Dyke's possessive mother. And the ballet sequence on the Ed Sullivan show is priceless. Great choice.