Listen to America: The 1940s

To see the intro to this project, as well as links to other decades, click here.

9) “Go Down, Moses,” from Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Writer-directors throughout movie history are rarely good at just shutting up and letting the work speak for itself, and Sullivan’s Travels is proof that even the best of them can stumble occasionally. The film ends with a little homily from Joel McCrea about the importance of laughter, whatever, but that assumes that the most powerful part of the film is in seeing a bunch of convicts and the parishioners of a Black church laugh at Pluto’s slapstick antics without regard to their own difficult circumstances. The reason that scene works is because it’s comic relief for what immediately precedes it. Jess Lee Brooks, playing the minister of this congregation, asks that the pews up front are left for their guests, and leads the group in “Go Down, Moses.” The song itself is sort of a cheat code, given that it’s one of the most powerful songs in American music, but there’s a brilliance in using it nonetheless. Sturges has chosen an instantly recognizable song, and one suited for the two communities intersecting in this moment. American movies frequently tell the story of how the chain gang was a tool of government terror deployed against people of color, people in the wrong place at the wrong time, people with nowhere else to go, or some combination of all three. Historically, the song suits the Black church; presently, the song suits Sullivan and his fellow chain gangers, shuffling in and making eerie percussion with the sounds of their chains that never quite drives out the basso voice of Brooks. Sturges is doing something newish here, in that the use of music is not likely to sell sheet music or make a big hit. It’s here solely to make a point, and that point is about as eloquent as anything Sturges ever wrote.

10) “Sweet Genevieve,” from Ball of Fire

There are examples of nostalgic songs elsewhere in ’30s and ’40s films—we’re going to get to another one in a second here—but the use of “Sweet Genevieve” struck me from my first go-round with Ball of Fire as a fascinating one. The song, while basically anonymous in the present, was still well-known in the 1940s. (A few years later, John Ford had a very Irish tenor drop a rendition for Fort Apache.) Nostalgia is a funny thing to find in the movies of this era, for so many of these films are either relentlessly contemporary or flashing back to some very bygone epoch. Maybe there were old folks who could gibber about Jesse James or Wyatt Earp at this point, and Earp himself had hung around Hollywood a fair bit in the 1920s, but the nostalgia fetish that can help a movie make as much money as the GDP of Belize hadn’t struck audiences of this time yet. That’s why the nostalgia in such a true form here, this sense of a time that’s lost and is really irrecoverable except in the musical phrases murmured by other old men, is so lovely. It’s not a scene that works because “Sweet Genevieve” is such a multigenerational banger, but because the film understands how to use (an unpretentiously beautiful) song as a tool.

11) “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Making a movie about George M. Cohan is its own attempt at weaponizing nostalgia, this time for the purpose of like, you know, making people want to pick up weapons. This is the first time I’ve seen a movie do something I kind of hate, which is to present a song that everyone knows in its early stages and then to give the audience credit for recognizing the song as it’s happening. There’s still some charm here in this scene between James Cagney and Joan Leslie, though, mostly because of what Cagney does that distracts from the obvious pleasure of hearing one of the most popular songs of the 20th Century. Rather than just letting Joan Leslie sing the thing, he sort of grunts at the start of each line as she’s singing—Cagney would have made a great worship leader for a nondenominational Protestant church—and then there’s a conversation at the end that makes it feel special. It’s not just for any Mary, but for this Mary, and the way everyone will know, George says, is that they’ll see how I look when you sing it. Yankee Doodle Dandy takes an old song and infuses it with specificity that I’m not sure most viewers would have given it before.

12) “La Marseillaise,” from Casablanca (1943)

Because Casablanca has been popular from the first, it’s been chic to denigrate it a little bit just to show you’re cool. Take the two anchors of American film criticism. Pauline Kael does it in 5,001 Nights at the Movies, for instance, ensuring that she emphasizes the silliness of the story while also recognizing how effective Bogart and Bergman are together. Andrew Sarris doesn’t have a lot of time for Michael Curtiz in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, but likes Casablanca pretty well despite that. Neither one of them talks about this scene in their shorter reviews, perhaps because it’d require taking Casablanca, and thus their tenderer feelings about it, more seriously. I’ve never thought it was necessary to know just how many of the actors in this scene were refugees from a Nazi-dominated Europe, because acting. The impact of it is much the same. We’ve been waiting for a moment like this in the film, even if we don’t know it yet; there’s been enough emphasis on Rick and Ilsa that we can chalk up the time and place of the film to stylistic anxiety. Yet the scene where John Qualen flashes the Free French symbol surreptitiously to Paul Henreid is there to lead into this one. Berger must keep himself safe and secret. Victor Laszlo is a Free French symbol once he gets out of bed each morning, and the dominoes fall rapidly and gloriously once he hears “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Curtiz has done something really magnificent here. He’s out-propaganda’d Jean Renoir, who’d done something similar in his own moral picture, Grand Illusion.

13) “Geechy Joe,” from Stormy Weather (1943)

I only gave myself one performance per movie, and with apologies to the rest of the cast of this film, I indulged and went with my favorite. In 2022, this is a time capsule. In 1943, this is a way for regular people to see one of the most popular acts of the time, and what a way it is to see him. Cab Calloway is a fine showman in that zoot suit, stepping and dancing and sliding about, and Andrew L. Stone gives us a way towards the end to feel what it would be like to see him in person, once we’re all the way at the back of the theater. What stands out most to me, simpleton that I am, is just how fabulous Calloway’s talent is. It’s sadly short, but it’s clear he has a one in a million voice and such incredible vocal control. At a time when variety shows were inflecting a lot of popular movies (go watch a Disney movie from this era and you’ll get a real pop culture history lesson), I can’t think of a more stunning performance than Calloway’s here.

14) “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” from Meet Me in St. Louis

By the time most Americans would have had a chance to see Meet Me in St. Louis, a musical which definitely sparks that potentially unique combination of wistfulness, joyfulness, and horror, it would have been about three years since Pearl Harbor. Despite the run of successes in Europe and the Pacific alike, many American families faced the knowledge that not only would they celebrate another Christmas without a son at home, but that their son would never see another Christmas with them ever again. The film is set in 1903, but Judy Garland is singing here for an audience that knows that they’ll have to “muddle through somehow” at every Christmas, unable to recover happier times. Since then, the sadness in this song has democratized, but in 1944 I think it would have been impossible not to hear Garland’s voice and not think of a son on a battleship or fighting on the Siegfried Line. To hang a shining star upon the highest bough is to heal from a deep wound, even if the depth of the pain is more compelling.

15) “All I Owe Ioway,” from State Fair (1945)

State Fair had already been made once before turning into this Technicolor cornfest (look, I don’t care how stupid the pun is, you should listen to this song and see if you still blame me), and despite myself this is a film I really like. The best song in here is undoubtedly “It Might As Well Be Spring,” which is melodically dyspeptic, but the one that seems most like it’s making a point is “All I Owe Ioway,” a song which winks at how dull Iowa is as a state but also emphasizing the home sweet home aspect of the place. There’s a myth of the heartland being made up by Oscar Hammerstein II, who was born in New York City, went to Columbia, and then became a Broadway icon. It’s a myth which has been repeated so often that our major news networks believe it’s true, and it doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence that the titular Private Ryan was also a son of Ioway presumably beefed up by corn, barley, wheat, rye, and so on.

16) “Put the Blame on Mame,” Gilda (1946)

State Fair ends with that fairly common final card which implores the viewers to buy war bonds. Gilda belongs to a time when such a card was unnecessary, and the only person making Gilda who knew that better than Rita Hayworth was director Charles Vidor. “Put the Blame on Mame” is a shorter number than its starry place in history would have you expect, but a song with two verses is sufficient to get the point across about what Rita Hayworth and a long line of bad girls (Jane Greer, Lauren Bacall, Yvonne DeCarlo, Marilyn Monroe…) could offer. Granted, what they could offer hadn’t changed much since the Cro-Magnon days, but for the first time in about ten years that offering looked tempting again. Hayworth here is about the most tempting floozy in an American movie since Miriam Hopkins stuck a naked leg out of bed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and though redheaded herself, she could not be more different than wholesome figure skater Jeanne Crain in State Fair. Crain’s song is about how lonely she is without stimulating company; no one who sings “Put the Blame on Mame” could possibly be without it.

17) “Buffalo Gals,” It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Neither one of Jimmy Stewart or Donna Reed can sing, and if they could it would have made a great mess out of this scene. “Hot dog, just like an organ!” George exclaims after their first ill-fated run at harmony, and it sets the tone for a scene which is among the most endearing in American movies. It’s a Wonderful Life uses “Buffalo Gals” as punctuation, the open quotes to begin the scene, the em dash when George realizes how gorgeous Mary is and when Mary realizes that George has finally figured it out, the comma for both of them to take a breath after a potentially erotic moment is pushed aside. It’s a scene where Mary controls the tune in a very literal way—she can carry it, at least, where the melody is a greased and ornery hog for George—and she uses it to her advantage throughout the scene until two things happen. First, inspired by the lyrics, George sees the “light of the Moon” in Mary’s fingers and toes and the ends of her hair, perhaps the most romantic thing ever said in Bedford Falls. Second, an older neighbor laments that “youth is wasted on the wrong people” after watching George talk to Mary rather than kissing her, a euphemism for any number of better activities. It’s a novelistic scene more than it’s a cinematic one, except for one lunar shot seen through trees that isn’t particularly Capraesque; it recalls Ford in his Murnau phase.

18) “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from Song of the South (1946)

If there’s another scene this well-known from a movie that’s this hard to see for normal people, I don’t know it. Obviously, you can find any movie if you want to find the torrent somewhere, but Song of the South is never going to come out of the Disney vault. By writing as many words as I have after Song of the South without using some form of “racist,” I’ve actually set a record for the longest gap between the title of the film and that word which Song of the South so richly deserves. In its own way, Uncle Remus of Georgia is as essential to America’s postwar self-recognition as the Frakes of Iowa. Where the Frakes have opportunity in front of them, buoyed up by a past that they can take pride in, Uncle Remus is comic, a figure who cannot be taken seriously in the now or in the past. And if neither of those is worth taking seriously, then surely the future of Uncle Remus—perhaps James Baskett, who wasn’t allowed to go to the premiere of the film he won an Honorary Academy Award for because it was in segregated Atlanta—is not worth taking seriously either. Wonderful feeling, wonderful day.

19) Jody call, from Battleground (1949)

The Jody call is one of the benchmarks of Battleground, a film which gets at the hardship and confusion and randomness of combat about as well as anyone would until the 1970s. The cadence provides order, reason, a little bit of sardonic humor. At the end of the film, after the unit has participated in the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge, done their part in holding the American position despite the last great German military effort of the war, the men are tired. They are worn through. These are survivors, maybe because of canniness but just as much because of better luck. But they still have their pride. I love the moment here where Van Johnson turns around and looks at James Whitmore and says, “Whatever happened to Jody?” It’s all he needs to start putting his men back into shape, creating a line of men who are leaving the battlefield fewer than they were before but still erect with accomplishment. In war movies before this one, “You’re in the Army Now” was basically omnipresent, a wake-up call for rubes who left the farm to get shot at. In Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick alters the cadence with the most chilling use of the “Mickey Mouse March” that we’ll ever have. Only in the years immediately after World War II could this Jody cadence be used without referring back to a feeling like scorn or irony.

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