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Reel Character One's List of 'Quintessentially American' Movies Is Insight Into Oneself

July 10, 1988|JACK SMITH

AMERICANS ARE what our movies make us. Our history, our sexual morality, our humor, our sense of justice all come to us more directly from the screen than from life.

Recently in the Denver Post, editorial writer Jack Cox argued that Mikhail Gorbachev might understand us better if he saw some films that were "quintessentially American."

Cox notes that on Gorbachev's historic visit to the United States, he had the opportunity to see "Top Gun," "Platoon" and "Nuts"--good films, but not meeting Cox's standards. Instead, he named "High Noon" and other classic Westerns, a few good cartoons and a Marx Brothers feature, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "The African Queen," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Sounder," "Midnight Cowboy" and "Star Wars." Essential, he said, would be "Gone With the Wind," "American Graffiti," "Cool Hand Luke" and "Twelve Angry Men."

Good choices overall, though I am uncertain about "Star Wars." As Cox himself says: "It would have to be made clear that George Lucas wasn't hired by President Reagan to do battle with the Evil Empire."

The column was sent to me by David E. Weber of Denver, who thinks it is a provocative subject for dinner conversation. He names his own list of films that he considers "quintessen tially American:"

"Casablanca," "Mr. Roberts," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The Searchers," "The Magnificent Seven," "Show Boat," "Oklahoma," "West Side Story," "The Apartment,""Annie Hall," "Sounder," "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Chinatown."

Anybody can make up such a list, and it will say more about himself than about the movies. I happen to think that the movies of the 1930s and 1940s were more influential in shaping us than films are today, when their function is partly usurped by television and rock 'n' roll.

In suggesting a list myself I'm just shooting from the hip, naming movies that, for whatever reason, are memorable and seem to have something to do with the way I am.

In the 1930s, especially, when the whole nation rumbled with disappointment in government and toyed with revolutionary ideas, the movies kept alive the American dream. It was the movies, not religion, that were the opium of the masses.

First, Gorbachev ought to see "All Quiet on the Western Front" because, as I believed when I first saw it, no man who saw it could ever make war.

"King Kong" because it teaches us to love our fellow beasts.

"It Happened One Night" because it shows that in a capitalist country an heiress (Claudette Colbert) can marry a newspaper reporter (Clark Gable).

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" because it shows that in America a man (Gary Cooper) can be decent even if rich.

"My Man Godfrey" because it proves that even a down-at-the-heels hobo (William Powell) can get rich on the stock market and marry a girl with pizazz (Carole Lombard).

"Stagecoach" because it shows that an outlaw (John Wayne) and a prostitute (Claire Trevor) can be forgiven their sins and find love.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" because it shows that an honest man (Jimmy Stewart) can triumph over the corruption of the U.S. Senate and win the heart of Jean Arthur.

"Casablanca" because it shows us what Humphrey Bogart was really like, that deep down, underneath the survival instinct and the cynicism, he was a true-blue American. (It takes a lot of patriotism to give up Ingrid Bergman for the flag.)

"It's a Wonderful Life" because Stewart shows us that life is worth living and greed does not pay.

"The African Queen" because it proves that a righteous spinster (Katharine Hepburn) and a disreputable river boat captain (Bogart) can overcome all (and I mean all ) to find love and sink the Germans.

"High Noon" because it proves that to a lawman (Cooper) duty comes first--even before Grace Kelly.

"The Ten Commandments" because it proves that Moses was really Charlton Heston and that Cecil B. DeMille was God.

I'm only up to the '50s, but if Gorbachev wants to understand American character, those should do it.

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