Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Celebrating the 4th (Cool, Inside and Safe)

It's too darn hot. (And, no, no one around here is offering "Kiss Me Kate" to tell us that musically.)

We're in a record heatwave, like much of the country, with dire warning that setting off firecrackers may start a fire or sitting outside in the sun to watch a parade may give you heatstroke. By the time the cities around here are starting their own, more closely safeguarded fireworks, safely out of the sun, it will have gone all the way down to.... 92 degrees.

If you prefer your 4th of July entertainment without the risk of sun or heat, yes, movie theaters are open today, and probably doing a land-office business. That means you can watch the All-American "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" or "The Amazing Spider-Man," or the quirky, but very American-in-its-own-way "Moonrise Kingdom" if that's how you want to celebrate.

If even a movie (or the trek to get there) puts you too much in the sun, your television has some excellent choices, too. Of course there are parades and concerts all over the dial, and HBO is airing its "John Adams" miniseries (the one with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as Second President John and Second First Lady Abigail) starting at 10 am, while Syfy has a marathon of "The Twilight Zone" that started at 8 am and runs till 5 am tomorrow. I don't recall any presidents or parades in "The Twilight Zone," but it is a distinctly American phenomenon, frequently commenting on concepts like community, isolation, individual freedom, prejudice, tolerance and war. Rod Serling hit the Civil War, Custer's Last Stand, World War II, and various versions of Mars as he looked at what makes us alike and different, what makes us human, and sometimes what makes us inhuman. Now Syfy just needs to get "Once Upon a Time," the Buster Keaton episode, and "A Quality of Mercy," where Dean Stockwell suddenly sees himself switch to the Japanese side during World War II in the Pacific.

But my recommendation for the best way to celebrate the 4th is to switch on over to Turner Classic Movies and look at their schedule of Independence Day programming. There's John Ford's "Drums Along the Mohawk," with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert settling the wilds of New York state, the musical "1776," where John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin sing their way through the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and then "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the one where tough guy James Cagney shows off his idiosyncratic stiff-legged dancing moves as George M. Cohan, the song-and-dance man who was born on the 4th of July.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" is not only a Cagney/Cohan showcase, it's a look at the past life of American pop music, Broadway, vaudeville, and patriotism through song. The movie was made in the middle of World War II, in 1942, so of course it wears its red-white-and-blue heart on its sleeve. There's even a visit from FDR.

Cohan certainly had a larger-than-life personality, just like Cagney, and that energy and enthusiasm, that joie de vivre, is in every inch of this flag-waving movie.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" airs on TCM tonight at 7 o'clock Central.


  1. I thoroughly endorse "Yankee Doodle Dandy." There's a bit of that 40s studio gloss to it, but surprisingly little compared to other items from that time, and they made a real effort at historical accuracy in some respects. In particular, Cagney worked hard to absorb Cohan's singing (a half-talking lilt) and dancing (that stiff-legged strut) styles. I actually show it in my class to help them understand about Cohan, even at one remove.

    Having done my bit of gushing there, may I be forgiven some negativity? I really hate the musical "1776." It's practically the only famous show that I feel that way about. Peter Stone's book is fine, ingenious even, the way it brings the historic figures to life and builds suspense about what we know will happen. But the music and lyrics are so thinly amateurish, I'm mortified every time I hear them. So I'm a curmudgeon.

  2. I haven't seen 1776 since the 70s, so I don't know. At that time, I enjoyed William Daniels and I was convinced that Ken Howard and Blythe Danner were a couple in real life. But I was young and foolish. I also saw it on stage in the 90s and enjoyed my friend Steve Keen as John Adams and David Barkley as whoever it is (John Cullum in the movie) who sings about rum and slavery.

  3. My longtime Encores companions, David and John, have a running joke with me that my Season from Hell would be "1776," "Celebration" (by Schmidt and Jones, look it up), and... well, we have trouble finding a third that hits my negative buttons so well.

  4. (Sorry about the dup. I replied from my phone. First time to reply to the blog from my phone! I was so excited I apparently sent it twice.)

    Anyway, I find your Season from Hell challenge amusing. I think for me it would be Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (the script is problematic from the get-go and the juxtaposition of new power ballads with the 50s pop from the movie is awkward at best), Jesus Christ Superstar (Hey, guys, why so much shouting?), and maybe Big River. Big River's mix of songs is kind of bizarre for me (there's one about a hog!), the story isn't put together very well, and I found myself more cringing than moved. But Pump Boys and Dinettes has given me a major headache every time I've seen it, so maybe that instead. Or Blood Brothers. On the other hand, I don't know Celebration, and there are a lot of shows that just have not been revived around me. (Thinking of Applause, The Apple Tree, City of Angels, Hallelujah Baby, Fiorello, the Two Gents of Verona that beat Follies for the Tony the first time...)

    I also don't like You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown or Grease, or any of those Nunsense things, but I've seen them done well enough to at least be acceptable enough to get through. I've also seen good material (Oklahoma, South Pacific, etc) done so poorly that I would *think* I never wanted to see it done again if I hadn't already seen it done well before the bad one.

    A very intriguing concept, anyway.