The classic films from the Golden Age of Hollywood are noted for their glamour, black-and-white cinematography, and wholesomeness. Movies made during the 1930s to the ’50s share another feature: patriotism. The flag-waving was not just restricted to propaganda movies made during World War II. From the mid-1930s onward, films took every opportunity to promote the virtues of the United States of America.
Much of this American pride came from the moguls and producers themselves, many of whom were not born in the United States but proudly claimed it as their home. They expressed their love for the USA through movies that showed immigrants finding the American dream. Three such movies are “Let Freedom Ring” from 1939, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” from 1942, and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” from 1945.
These movies show that Americans, although they still have problems, had the potential for a better life here than anywhere else.
‘Let Freedom Ring’
“Let Freedom Ring,” also called “Song of the Plains,” tells the story of the railroad’s expansion to a small Western town in 1868. With it comes racketeer Jim Knox (Edward Arnold), who quickly takes control of the court, the sheriff, and the local newspaper as his railroad workers flood Clover City. He thinks he also can claim the heart of lovely young restaurateur Maggie Adams (Virginia Bruce), but she is disgusted by his tyrannical takeover of the town.
Maggie believes that her sweetheart, Steve Logan (Nelson Eddy), will return from Harvard and aid the small rebellion led by his father (Lionel Barrymore). However, she is heartbroken when he returns and appears to support Mr. Knox. Little does she know that he and his boyhood friend, The Mackerel (Charles Butterworth), are secretly scheming to defeat Knox through the power of the press.
‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a semifictional biopic about musical playwright George M. Cohan. The film begins when an older Cohan (James Cagney) opens his show “I’d Rather Be Right Than Be President.” Afterward, he receives a special invitation to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
While talking with the president, Cohan recounts his whole life and career, beginning with his birth on the Fourth of July to vaudevillian parents. He remembers how his family performed all over America as The Four Cohans. His childhood experience as a song and dance man eventually leads to his becoming a famous songwriter. Even as he reviews his long musical career, he doesn’t realize what a big influence his work has had on the nation.
‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” set in the early 1910s, centers on the life of a second-generation immigrant couple and their two children. The mother, Katie Nolan (Dorothy McGuire), works hard as a scrubwoman because her husband, Johnny (James Dunn), is an alcoholic, seldom-working singing waiter.
While their son, Neeley (Ted Donaldson), is content helping the family’s income through earning pennies, his older sister, Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), is a dreamer like her father. She loves reading and imagining beautiful things. When she tells her beloved father that she wants to go to the public school in a wealthy neighborhood, he falsifies her address to give her the opportunity for a better education. While Francie dreams of becoming a writer, her mother faces more grim financial prospects, since she is expecting a third child.
All three of these films feature first- or second-generation US immigrants. The Cohans of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” are Irish. Johnny Nolan in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is also Irish, while Katie’s parents are Austrian. In “Let Freedom Ring,” the railroad workers are European immigrants of many nationalities.
All three films illustrate how immigrants appreciate America’s equal opportunity for self-improvement. Katie’s mother, Grandma Rommely (Ferike Boros), tells her grandchildren that in America everyone has the opportunity to become better than his or her parents. Similarly, Steve Logan knows that Knox’s hired immigrants can become loyal, proud Americans by learning the country’s values and its promise of equal opportunities.
George Cohan is a living example of this promise, since his rise from obscurity to fame shows that anyone can succeed in America through hard work and determination. When speaking to President Roosevelt, Cohan says: “I wouldn’t worry about this country, if I were you. We got this thing licked. Where else in the world can a plain guy like me come in and talk things over with the head man?” All these films emphasize the American rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As a musical, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” contains many patriotic songs. George M. Cohan penned many famous Americana tunes, most notably the World War I song “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” as well as, of course, the song of the show’s title. These songs are presented in musical reviews full of military uniforms, stars, stripes, historic vignettes, and lots of flags beaming red, white, and blue—vibrant enough to be seen in black-and-white!
“Let Freedom Ring” also includes some patriotically inspiring music, including the timeless “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” plus an original song about America’s unique liberty, “Where Else but Here,” delivered by Nelson Eddy’s operatic voice.
Two of these films delve deeper into how American liberty is bred and preserved. In “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Grandma Rommely tells her grandchildren why it is important for them to read classic literature. Although uneducated, she has great wisdom about why the United States is special: “In that old country [Austria], a child can rise no higher than his father’s state. But here, in this place, each one is free to go as far as he’s good to make of himself. This way, the child can be better than the parent, and this is the true way things grow better. And this has to do something with the learning, which is here free to all people.”
The importance of reading is further highlighted in “Let Freedom Ring,” in which a printing press is the main weapon in Clover City’s fight for liberty. Steve refers to print type as “the artillery of freedom” and says that he has tried to “hit [deceived people] over the head with a newspaper.”
The Clover City Bugle is not an unbiased, honest publication, since the publisher (Raymond Walburn) answers to Jim Knox in exchange for money. Fortunately, Steve takes control of the Bugle and begins printing the truth. He explains the power of the press: “The financiers can rob the poor of justice, but as long as there’s one decent newspaper left, and one man to print it, and one horse to peddle it, the United States of America is sitting pretty!”
God Bless America
Although fireworks displays, picnics, and parades are traditional ways of celebrating American Independence Day, it is far too easy to forget what we’re really celebrating. These three films are perfect reminders for this occasion, although in different ways. “Let Freedom Ring” shows that patriots have always had to fight to protect American freedom from tyrants who would exploit citizens and immigrants alike. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” reminds us what a vital part patriotic entertainment plays in maintaining American values. And through the Nolan family, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” highlights the struggles and joys of countless Americans who strive to maintain decency, kindness, and generosity while giving their children a bright future.
These classic films’ nostalgia further adds to their heartwarming charm as they honor traditional Americanism. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a serious drama, but the two musicals don’t skimp on powerful emotions. Both have poignant and tearful moments as well as inspiring ones. You won’t regret adding one or all of these old movies to your Independence Day celebration.
Tiffany Brannan is a 19-year-old opera singer, Hollywood history/vintage beauty copywriter, film reviewer, fashion historian, travel writer, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.