From Plymouth Rock to Hollywood in Song and Dance: Yankee Mythology in the Film Musical
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 4, Number 1, February 1974
- pp. 1-3
- View Citation
- Additional Information
FROM PLYMOUTH ROCK TO HOLLYWOOD IN SONG AND DANCE: Yankee Mythology in the Film Musical By Sal Licata Sal Licata is a graduate student at the University of Southern California. His special interest is 20th century U.S. cultural history. Swathed in red, white and blue bunting and cheerful to the point of a tear, the American musical film stands as a 5th grade Civic teacher's delight. Making no pretense at reality, it glories in its own illusions and sweeps away rational sensibility. It draws heavily upon the American experience to build its illusions thus perpetuating commercially and artistically the myths ofthis nation. The most successful motif in musical film mythology is the Yankee tradition(s). The Yankee mythology is a complex heritage from New England's Puritan period. This small grouping ofcolonies, heavily saturated with Calvinistic doctrine, has influenced America and Americans in matters ofpolitics, manners, morals, and economics. Even the physical profile ofthe mythological American evolves from the New England prototype; a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. American names pretentiously trace their genealogy back to this area (Virginia is also acceptable) with Winthrops, Mathers, Bradstreets, Adams, and Hancocks reaching down the years to the Lodges. The New England stock has had that unique ability to make any other people feel as guests not residents ofthe nation. (South Pacific had two such provincials.) Yankee names and stereotypes dominate the musical, only overtly ethnic musicals set in urban environments (Funny Girl and it had to be borrowed from Broadway) introduce people who do not reflect this quintessential American. The good American is the farmer since he is humbly closer to nature and thus God (agrarian chauvinism in Oklahoma.) This heritage has been only recently eroding, but the displaced farmer in the urban environment is still wary ofthe ungodliness ofthe city. Small towns are acceptable since they embody the spirit ofthe New England town meeting and can be recognized as such (Summer Holiday.) When cities are used an even larger city is often played offagainst it (St. Louis with its Fair is more desirable than NYC.) While cities do emerge, they are often treated in an operatic tragic manner (West Side Story") or are heroed by rural transplants to the city (My Sister-Eileen.) There are of course exceptions (Guys and Dolls and Pal Joey) but most ofthese are borrowed from urban musicals Off-Broadway. Very few musicals (New Orleans an exception) take their name from an urban setting. Calvinism has created a theological atmosphere very conducive to a capitalistic, acquisition oriented society-enter the Weber Thesis. This privatism spirit stressed the success ethic. Those who succeeded were pre-ordained by God to succeed and their success attested to their being part ofthe Elect. This predestination of success evolved in the rags to riches stories ofHelen Morgan, Ruth Eddy, Billy Holiday, and Gypsy Rose Lee (wow!) which had only a loose working relationship with the facts. The God given talents of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, John Philip Sousa, and W.C. Handy were given to these individuals to share with their less talented neighbors. It would be a crime against God not to use these talents. In turn, hard work was essential in Calvinist doctrine to demonstrate that idle thoughts and deeds were not interfering with work and the Bible (remember Dorothy's background in The Wizard of Oz.) Ifany musical captures the essence ofthe work ethic as well as the preordained talent it would be A Star is Born where the show must go on! Does this mean that the heroes and heroines are unmercifully tied to their God given chores? No, since a strong dose ofYankee pragmatism, thanks to Henry James, allows for playing after the work is done (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.) There is a common sense streak, which the American public associates with the parsimonious Yankee. This materialistic security factor is often used as the main barrier to marriage for a sickenly sweet, platonic love affair between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. But if the marriage is attained, the family structure and home are sacrosanct (thus the fierce competition on Sadie Hawkins ' Day in Li'l Abner.) Within these families, the most atypical members...