Wow, this should have been good and boy, was it ever bad, but with a vignettes featuring mega-stars such as William Powell, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March, plus Janet Leigh sharing time with Gene Kelly, and old reliables such as Marjorie Main, S.Z. Sakall, and Lewis Stone, well It's a Big Country will always be worth watching at least once.
A Dore Schary project the star-studded 1951 release played to me like a preview of the world inhabited by all those classic 1950's television sit-coms yet to come: quaint, corny, and often false, but whereas those TV shows offered just enough fantasyland to draw you in It's a Big Country, designed as a propaganda film, presents just enough to rub you wrong. It could have been so much more.
A look at the episodes:
1. Interuptions, Interuptions, Directed by Richard Thorpe - Grade A corn serves to set-up the seven shorts to follow. An overtalkative James Whitmore takes an open seat next to William Powell on a train and interupts Powell's reading so many times that he finally closes his book to talk America with the zealous young Whitmore. Powell's reply of "Which America?" to Whitmore's rhetorical What a Country jazz leaves the younger man puzzled. As Powell, in a strange accent that almost sounds British, counts off the myriad different America's: political, historical, the U.S. as part of World Community, etc., etc., Whitmore glazes over even more. Upon excusing himself he takes a seat at the dining car where his table mate (Elisabeth Risdon) remarks on how wonderful America is herself and, brace yourself, Whitmore replies, "Lady, which America?" And so the tone is set, I'm already a bit embarrassed for Powell and Whitmore, but with seven stories to come they can't all be clunkers, can they?
2. The Lady and the Census Taker, Directed by John Sturges - Featuring Ethel Barrymore, the most sentimental of the vignettes, yet one of the best offered up in It's a Big Country. Barrymore's Mrs. Brian O'Riordan (alternately Mrs. Riordan) is disturbed by something in the paper, tears the page out and heads down to the offices of the local paper to meet with the Managing Editor, played by George Murphy. Mrs. O'Riordan explains that the article claims that the 1950 census is complete, but she insists that's not so because nobody ever counted her. Being in her seventies and pretty sure about not making the 1960 count, Mrs. O'Riordan pleads with Managing Editor Callahan to find a way to have her counted. After sending her on her way with his assurances the hard-edged Callahan sends out one of his reporters (Keenan Wynn) to pose as a census taker and get a story out of the old lady. When Mrs. O'Riordan recognizes the reporter from her visit to the office guilt overcomes the newspapermen and we speed towards another predictable outcome.
3. The Negro Story - Or what MGM decides to do when it doesn't have any African-American actors, or least any they feel can carry a single segment, on the payroll. We can't leave this out, but we don't have the necessary resources to put it in, hmmm, what to do? Ah, we'll have narrator Louis Calhern speak over documentary footage of every great black person our audience may have heard of! Roll: Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Levi Jackson, Marion Anderson, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Justice Francis Rivers, Judge Jane Bolan, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Dr. Ralph Bunche ... is that all of them? Wait, let's throw in George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, they're dead and all but our audience knows them. Great, we filled a good 3-4 minutes with The Negro Story, what do you think? Better than nothing. Is it?
4. Rosika, the Rose, Directed by Charles Vidor - Overall lame, but eventually funny story features paprika entrepreneur S.Z. Sakall and his several daughters, the eldest of which, Rosa, is a beautiful young Janet Leigh. The daughters talk of how tough it is to get married when their father prefers Hungarian husbands for them and absolutely insists none of them marry a Greek, because the Hungarians hate the Greeks. When prodded as to why Hungarians hold this hatred for the Greeks, S.Z. doesn't have a ready answer but says it's always been so, so it must be for a reason. So it's no big shocker when Rosa falls in love at first sight with a young man who drives her to school one morning, a fellow named Icarus Xenophon (Gene Kelly), and the fine fellow turns out to be a Greek. The culmination of this scene is actually hilarious with (for some reason) a slew of fellows from the neighboring Greek Athletic Club pouring into Xenophon's ice cream shop ready to brawl with S.Z. and his girls. Still trying to figure out what an ice cream shop needs with a stenographer, but hey, times were different.
5. Letter from Korea, Directed by Don Weis - Despite all the stars of higher stature in It's a Big Country it's Marjorie Main who treats this thing seriously and delivers the best performance in the movie as the mother of a deceased soldier being visited by his best friend from the service, Maxi Klein (Keefe Brasselle). But even the potential tensions of this dramatic piece wind up going underplayed as Main's Mrs. Wrenley initially turns on Maxi because her son had never mentioned him in his letters, but the real reason, which is dropped as soon as the realization of it hits you, is because Maxi is Jewish. Before It's a Big Country takes the opportunity to deal with issues of Anti-Semitism, Maxi corrects Mrs. Wrenley in pointing out that he is the Jo-Jo of her son's letters. That fixes everything and the moment passes. Still, Main is heartbreaking for a few minutes here.
6. Texas, Directed by Clarence Brown - This is just silly, but at least it knows it's silly. Gary Cooper is Texas. He rides up, rolls a cigarette, and tells us all about Texas for 3 minutes.
7. Minister in Washington, Directed by William A. Wellman - Van Johnson is Reverend Adam Burch, called to Washington to be minister at FDR's church in 1944. Why we're flashing back, I don't know, but here we are. Roosevelt doesn't appear for his first several sermons, but Burch continues to write sermons directly intended for the President which wise old Lewis Stone kindly tells him is a disappointment to the entire congregation. It felt like they could have done more with this but they didn't. Wondering why they just didn't keep it in the present where all of the other stories seemed to be set and just have Burch be Truman's minister. It's not like the used the real Roosevelt, it's 1951, they couldn't, but it's not like they needed to either. Strange.
8. Four Eyes, Directed by Don Hartman - Talk about one where you can smell the ending moments in, Four Eyes is it. I suppose they meant to finish with a bang having Fredric March starring as Joe Esposito, but March is practically unrecognizable in both speech and appearance as the Italian (?) patriarch, so I can't understand why. Joseph Esposito the younger (Bobby Hyatt) is a student of Miss Coleman's (Nancy Davis) and has trouble reading the blackboard in her class. Miss Coleman insists the boy get glasses while his father insists he does not. There's a humorous scene where March misunderstands Miss Coleman and believes she's told him his son is deaf as well, but otherwise there's not much going on here except the chance to see the future Mrs. Reagan, who isn't very good anyway.
This project seems to have been taken on with the best of intentions, but outside of Marjorie Main it doesn't feel like anybody's heart is in it. Reading the A.F.I. notes about It's a Big Country it appears there were plans to really show America's melting pot along the way, but the finished product barely reflects this. There is mention of a tale I would have eaten up about a black professional baseball player dealing with integration, but it didn't happen and instead we got The Negro Story, which appears to have been every bit as savaged at the time for the same reasons I rip it here. There were also plans to include a piece about a Chinese-American family which bit the dust when Production Code Administrator Joseph I. Breen felt the episode would be insulting to Chinese. Judging by the overall quality of what we do get I think I'm going to side with Breen on this one. Finally, there was a segment actually filmed featuring Jean Hersholt and Ann Harding, which surely would have been interesting and couldn't have been any worse than what is included here, but it was cut and doesn't exist today.
In the end I don't think it's a big surprise that It's a Big Country is a big disappointment. America, 1951: the Cold War, Korea, McCarthyism, the TV explosion, all ignored, all as expected. Just a few years later they might have been able to do this a lot better. But what we've got with It's a Big Country is largely the America that typical Americans were exposed to by the mass media and entertainment industry of the period, only problem is, those same people were living their lives then and they surely knew better.