I AM AN AMERICAN (1944)
Running Time: 16 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Crane Wilbur
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gary Gray, Dick Haymes, Danny Kaye, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan, Jay Silverheels, Arturo Toscanini
A Benchmark of Pure Propaganda.
By its nature, propaganda is sly. However sometimes it is pure and unvarnished propaganda. When it’s believed that the message is so urgent that there is no shame involved in presenting the message as directly and robustly as possible.
I AM AN AMERICAN is a no bones-about-it title. It concerns a couple from the “Polish Ukraine”, Maria and Theodor Kanowski who arrive in New York’s Castle Garden in 1853. It is stressed that this example is merely a didactic fiction as it could be immigrants from almost anywhere with any family name. Several are listed, but we come back to the Kanowskis. They walk to Ohio where they start farming and have children, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Martha Washington. The father goes off to the civil war in 1861 and comes back missing his right arm (He gives his good strong right arm for his country.) He starts over and prospers and has more children and grandchildren. It’s 1898 and Spain has declared war and Father calls a family meeting and six of his grandsons go off to war, two coming back. One left on the battlefield and three to malaria. The Patriarch, now widowed, is seen in his bed, as America is about to enter World War I exhorting his descendants to join up to fight for their country. He leaves the responsibility of rallying the family for the next war to his son, George Washington Kanowski. The family is so large and scattered that he can’t call a family meeting but must telegraph them.
Throughout it is stressed that this could be any family from any national background. Several times lists of counties and ethnic names are reeled off just in case we didn’t get the message. Dennis Morgan is brought out to seal the deal though his speech is delivered in front of a rear screen projection of a mass rally. This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all the cadences of Dennis Morgan’s speech were identical to those of Ronald Reagan. In other words a professional actor delivering “material”. One might wonder why Maj. Ronald Reagan wasn’t asked to do the job. First of all Dennis Morgan was a real star, someone who carried an “A” film on their own. Secondly Reagan was the head of the Air Corps film unit based at the Hal Roach Studio (Fort Wacky) whose films usually starred Reagan (JAP ZERO). I AM etc. was made at Warner Brothers. But it’s interesting that after the war, when Reagan began working for General Electric and Young & Rubicam, and began making The Speech, it would be based on the rhetoric of a propaganda movie.
Of course the importance of the film is to rally the various ethnic groups to the flag. Apparently this was a problem in the still segregated US Armed Services. There were north south rivalries as well as the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture refusing to co-operate with other ethnicities as well as Jews and Catholics. This was to sweep up in a rising tide of patriotism to reiterate the fact that all were Americans and we can win if we all fight together.
It’s all very direct because the goal, victory in the war, was considered so paramount that subtlety was not a desirable quality. The result is pure propaganda, of a purity so unsullied by doubt that it stands as a benchmark of propaganda.
The film actually begins by announcing that America was an empty land full of land and resources until the Vikings landed in 1000 (they were not returning to Greenland from Norway but looking for more land) and are met by Indians, who, its pointed out, were immigrants from Asia. Then we see the Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock in search of religious freedom (!) and Washington with his Polish aides and on until the Konowskis show up in New York.
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