An eight-episode, star-studded portmanteau comprising comedic, dramatic, and documentary vignettes exploring American life.
The introductory episode, set aboard a train, features William Powell as a bespectacled professor. He sits reading. James Whitmore sits down next to him and, oblivious to Powell’s reading, insists on striking up a conversation. Less interested in what Powell has to say, than in hearing himself talk, Whitmore pontificates on America’s greatness.
“Which America?” Powell replies, giving up on his book. Whitmore sits puzzled. Powell elaborates, rattling off the various Americas: the political America, the historical America, the America of the world community, and the American personality. One might hope the rest of the film would explore these themes, perhaps contrasting them via a through-line character, but alas.
Anyway, dazed, Whitmore wanders off to eat lunch. His sits down opposite an older lady who gazes out the window and muses how she’s proud to be part of this America. “Lady, which America?” he asks and the episode ends.
Episode two takes place in Boston. Ethel Barrymore plays a widowed mother who lives alone on a deserted block. One morning she reads in the paper that the latest census is complete. Concerned, she takes the bus downtown and asks to see the paper’s editor. The census can’t be complete, she says, because she wasn’t counted.
This bit almost lost me. The scene’s overwrought melodrama and the inanity of Barrymore going to the paper instead of the census bureau, felt too contrived. But Barrymore commands a preternatural respect through sheer charisma.
Consider how, when the editor sends a staff writer played by Keenan Wynn to pose as a census official, Barrymore recognizes him. In a deadpan tone dripping disappointment, she says, “I think this is a sorry joke to play on an old woman who has done you no harm.” I can’t imagine the sequence working with anyone else.
Wynn returns to the paper, feeling like a heel. The editor, ashamed, phones the local census bureau. They say sorry, but there’s nothing they can do. He calls their boss. Sorry, nothing we can do. The editor calls the mayor. Sorry. He calls Washington. Sorry. Furious, he even calls the president. Sorry.
Contrite, the editor and Wynn return to Barrymore’s house. As they begin their apology, a real census official arrives, muttering how the editor had lit a fire under their office. The official asks Barrymore when she immigrated to America, and Barrymore launches into a long story as the film transitions to the next episode.
Episode three consists of archive footage. Opening with Naval Academy graduates, it pivots to celebrating notable black Americans. Though intended as a celebration of equality, watching it now, one can’t help notice the difference between the well-produced opening footage of the gleaming Naval Academy and the later, less flashy footage of the black academies and their worn buildings. Did 1951 audiences see this too, or was it cultural blindness?
The fourth episode continues the theme of race, though it borders on parody. A Hungarian girl, played by Janet Leigh, who falls for an ice-cream shop owner, played by Gene Kelly. They stammer and gaze at each other.
Conflict arises when Leigh discovers Kelly is Greek, as her Papa is adamant that “Hungarians hate Greeks.” Still, Leigh takes a typist job working for Kelly.
They carry on in secret until Leigh’s homely kid sister plays peeping tom and spies them kissing. She runs home and tells Papa. Cue the Benny Hill music and over-cranked footage as he rounds up the family in the car and they tear into town.
Kelly tries to make peace, offering Leigh’s father a cup of coffee. Leigh’s father refuses, saying he’ll never drink Greek coffee. Kelly reaches behind the counter and produces a large coffee tin bearing a picture of George Washington. Leigh’s father reaches for the coffee and all is well. I don’t believe the film had ill intent, but this resolution feels reductive—borderline demeaning—for folks enduring real racism.
Episode five proves more subtle. It opens with a soldier, returned from Korea, paying a visit to the mother of a friend killed in action. She welcomes him in, but her demeanor changes after he reveals his name as “Klein, Maxie Klein.”
“What did you come here to see me about?” she asks. All traces of warmth are gone now, but Maxie is unmoved. He came to share the last letter her son wrote him, wherein he talks about the various ethnic groups fighting alongside him in the war, Yanks, South Koreans, Turks, Aussies, and how nobody “tolerates” anyone else—you need them.
This moves the mother who’s now ashamed of her prior antisemitism and resolves to write Maxie’s mother and tell her what a good boy she’s raised.
This vignette may not have landed as strong as the film would like—Keefe Brasselle lacks the haunted gravitas necessary for the part of Maxie—but I appreciated the low-key approach and recognition that it takes more than a coffee label to change years of prejudice. In comparison to the prior episode it still delivers a message of hope, but one that proves less insulting to the audience.
Episode six stands out. Gary Cooper plays a fourth wall breaking cowboy talking to us about Texas. “The way people talk, you’d think the landscape was just one darn oil well after another,” he says as the film wipe-transitions to an endless array of oil wells.
This juxtaposition continues as he talks about Texas girls. “Don’t any of them wear anything but Levy’s and plaid shirts,” he says as we transition to a bevy of bathing suit beauties, “Why, you wouldn’t even know they was females unless one of them up and told you.”
But my favorite bit required no juxtaposition. “Folks say Texans think they’re independent of the rest of the country,” Cooper says looking into the camera. “Now, that’s a doggone lie,” he continues. “Why, we declared war on Germany the very same day the United States did.”
Score one for Cooper’s deadpan delivery. That made me laugh.
The seventh episode concerns a priest in 1944 played by Van Johnson. He arrives in Washington, DC to lead St. Thomas’s church, but errs in preaching to the congregation’s most famous member, president Roosevelt, who’s so far been absent. After a few weeks, Van Johnson realizes the error of his ways and preaches to the entire flock, reinvigorating the congregation. Roosevelt happens to be in attendance and requests an audience.
Like one of Van Johnson’s early sermons, this proves dull and forgettable. Van Johnson’s arc is more a pivot. One conversation with his aide changes his mind and he’s fine. Devoid of drama, the episode lacks any resonance.
The final episode concerns a teacher, played by future first lady Nancy Davis, who determines one of her pupils needs glasses, but the boy’s immigrant father, played by Fredric March, balks. The boy’s mother gets them anyway and they keep them secret. But tragedy strikes when the boy takes off his glasses while playing at a vacant construction site to avoid his father seeing them and plummets into a pile of bricks because he couldn’t see where he was going. The now contrite father sports glasses of his own at the end.
Unlike Ethel Barrymore, March can’t overcome the contrived melodrama. Given his over-the-top performance, one wonders if he realized as much. He hams it up as the immigrant father, in a performance that apes Lee J. Cobb’s as William Holden’s immigrant father in Golden Boy. Every line is an exclamation. Every gesture, a spastic jerk.
I watched It’s a Big Country because it features William Powell, but already I must reread this review’s opening to remember his segment. Much of the film, save Barrymore and Cooper’s segments, falls into this trap, rendering this a severe disappointment given the assembled talent on screen.