Great Classic Films: The Fourth of July
This is the first in a series of Great Classic Films for various occasions and audiences. Stay tuned for Great Classic Films for Kids, Families, Date Nights, holidays, etc! Thanks to my sister Abigail for suggesting the series!
My Great Classic Films for the Fourth of July list does not contain any combat films, as wonderful as those can be. Instead, I’ve chosen five exuberantly American films. This Independence Day, I’m going for big, bright, and brilliant, classic Hollywood-style!
1. Casablanca (1942)
My first pick bends my just-stated rules, but let me explain. If you are in the mood for an America-at-war movie this 4th of July, you can’t do much better than this incredible, one-of-the-best-films-ever, WWII drama. If there was an entry for “timeless classic” in a film encyclopedia, it would be Casablanca. Unlike some other classics (Citizen Kane, anyone?) that can feel a little like a chore to sit through, and that you “appreciate” but don’t really enjoy, this movie remains gripping, funny, romantic, and damn watchable, even seventy-two years on.
The cast can’t be beat: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight, Notorious, Spellbound), Claude Rains (Notorious), Paul Henreid, and Conrad Veidt, among many other great supporting actors, the script is taut perfection, and weary, cynical Rick will eventually have you cheering.
Rick is an American living in Vichy-occupied but really Nazi-controlled Casablanca, a city full of refugees fleeing WWII. The dream is to get to America through Casablanca via neutral Portugal, but many get stuck in Casablanca indefinitely. Rick runs his nightclub and remains “neutral,” but things get complicated when an old love arrives and needs his help to escape the Nazis. Okay, so it’s not a big and bright Technicolor extravaganza, but when this film ends, you’ll be ready for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and fireworks! Here’s the trailer.
2. Easy to Love (1953)
Huge swing from Casablanca, but give me a moment. Esther Williams (Thrill of a Romance, Neptune’s Daughter, Dangerous When Wet, and Million Dollar Mermaid) is an All-American girl, a national-record-setting swimmer turned movie star, paired with an All-American boy, Van Johnson. (They were in five movies together, four as romantic leads.)
In this film, Johnson runs Cypress Gardens in Florida (it was shot on location), and Williams is his star attraction, a swimming, water-skiing beauty who models on the side. She is in love with him, but he only sees her as a valuable commodity and profit-machine.
For example, Johnson tells a visitor that Williams’ “smile has sold more toothpaste, her legs more nylons, her middle more girdles than you can possibly believe…She’d run away with the Miss America title every year if I’d let her compete.” (But he doesn’t let her compete because it “Wouldn’t be fair to the other contestants.”) Not only is Easy to Love a bright, Technicolor MGM musical, but it’s got an added edge of critique/endorsement of celebrity, image-driven marketing, and commodification.
Why is this a fun Independence Day movie? Williams’ character gets to be feisty and fun as she battles for her own independence from Cypress Gardens, and there are some absolutely absurd, exuberantly American water-skiing and water ballet interludes. Helicopters, speedboats, tourists, pageants, and sunny Florida plus Williams and Johnson? Can’t get much more American than that! And it’s about as joyful and spectacular as a fireworks display! Here’s the trailer. For more, read my full-length review here.
3. On the Town (1949)
If you’re in the mood for a musical, this one is hard to beat! On the Town was based on a 1944 stage show but was brought to the silver screen by the famed Freed Unit at MGM, responsible for such sparkling musicals as Meet Me in St. Louis, Good News, and Kismet. It stars Gene Kelly (Cover Girl, Summer Stock), Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett (Neptune’s Daughter, My Sister Eileen), and Jules Munshin.
The film was directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and some scenes were shot on location in New York City, a rare move at the time. In fact, sometimes hidden cameras were employed to avoid attracting attention and crowds!
The film follows three sailors (Kelly, Sinatra, and Munshin) on twenty-four hour shore leave in the Big Apple. They meet three ladies (Miller, Ellen, and Garrett), and romance, hijinks, comedy, and plenty of singing and dancing fill their time together!
The book and lyrics were penned by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the duo behind Singin’ in the Rain, My Sister Eileen, and Good News. On the Town is a celebration of New York City, of America, and of the great American movie musical by some of its greatest talents. On the Town is about as exuberant as it gets, and everyone should see Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin bursting out with “New York, New York, a wonderful town!” Fun fact: the original line, “a helluva town,” was changed for the movie! Here’s the trailer.
4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur (Easy Living, The More the Merrier), Claude Rains (Notorious), Astrid Allwyn (Hands Across the Table) and Edward Arnold (Easy Living), this film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and remains timelessly excellent.
Jimmy Stewart plays naive, optimistic Jefferson Smith who runs a Boy Scout-esque organization. He’s appointed to the Senate by his state’s governor, who assumes that Smith will be easy to manipulate. Smith doesn’t realize that just about everyone in Washington is crooked, criminal, jaded, or all three, and eventually his innocent, honest idealism causes problems for some corrupt political bosses and politicians…his filibuster against these forces is cinematic magic!
It’s a must-watch that unfortunately remains very relevant, but don’t worry, it’s not a downer. It’s one of my July 4th pics because even though it shows a dark side, it will still make you say “Hurray for democracy! Hurray for America!” Plus, it’s available to stream instantly on Netflix! Here’s the trailer.
5. Stagecoach (1939)
This is considered one of the greatest westerns ever made, and what’s more American than that? Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it was released in that wonderful film year of 1939, and it also has a stellar cast. Directed by John Ford, it stars Claire Trevor, George Bancroft, Louise Platt, Andy Devine, John Carradine, and Thomas Mitchell. Oh, and a young man named John Wayne. This was Wayne’s breakout role, and he’s just tremendous as the outlaw Ringo Kid. And jaw-droppingly young and handsome–his first appearance in the film is epic.
It is 1855 and we’re traveling on a stagecoach with an awkward mix of people in very tight quarters. There’s a alcoholic doctor, a corrupt banker, a gentlemanly but dangerous gambler, a prostitute with a heart of gold, a tough marshal, and a classy lady. Plus, a scared salesman and an outlaw out for revenge!
The film is mythic in its archetypes, conflicts, and scenery (it was the first film Ford shot in Monument Valley, a now iconic location.) The journey would be difficult enough, but add on rampaging Apaches, a baby’s untimely arrival, and an overwhelmed U.S. Cavalry, and you’ve got a legendary, epic western. It’s a beautiful, exciting, surprisingly moving film, a giant in this very American genre. Here’s the trailer.
Happy 4th of July!