What to Watch on Independence Day

The 4th of July is Independence Day in the U.S.  Here are a few classic movies to watch on that day.

Nice Girl? (1941)

Deanna Durbin, a very popular star of the 1930s and 1940s, plays the overlooked daughter of a professor  (Robert Benchley) in a small town who is willing to sacrifice her reputation to get attention from someone.  Anyone. Including a visiting professor, played by Franchot Tone.

It's a  heart-warming, comedic, patriotic film, set during the initial stirrings of U.S. involvement in the European Conflict. There is a scene during the 4th of July that will have you choked up, what with Benchley nearly crying and Durbin singing "Beneath the Lights of Home." Read the review of Nice Girl? at The Amazing Deanna Durbin Blog

Java Reminisces 
This is one of my childhood favorites. Franchot Tone always has a bemused smirk on his face, letting you know it's all a silly comedy and everything will turn out fine.The mansion his character owns is to DIE for! I need that gigantic closet!

This is the first Robert Stack film I recall seeing. He's a gearhead who is more in love with his car than with the girl-next-door. He suddenly needs to compete for Durbin when this sophisticated professor rolls into town. He's almost like the bashful maiden and  Durbin is the Wolf.

You have to love Stack's final scene with Durbin, because he's almost emotive and human, which works perfectly for the character. You want to follow up with a sequel to see how he continually unfurls his vulnerability.

Benchley, who is known in real life for his humorous newspaper columns and short films, gives a surprisingly nuanced and sober performance as the understanding father who protects his daughter from wagging tongues and her own foolishness. One of my favorite of his scenes is when he gives his daughter her space and tells everyone not to disturb her, after the neighbors start gossiping about a girl whom they once thought was "nice."

On the Town  (1949)

This is a great standby favorite. Turner Classic Movies will show Independence Day-themed films on the 4th of July. Their lineup includes On the Town, a classic movie starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin. It's  a fun little comedy about 3 sailors in the U.S. Navy on 24-hour shore leave in New York City.  Read On the Town and Musical Noir

Military personnel on leave was a very prominent plotline of the mid-20th century.  The possibilities of life-changing decisions made in an instant during a state of emergency led to rather complicated fun in comedies or trauma in the more dramatic versions of this plot.

Java Reminisces  
This is one of those films that I would rewind again and again as a child, learning all the choreography and dialogue.  Gene Kelly indirectly taught me the Time Step.

The 3 men state from the begining that they only have 24 hours in New York. They end up back on the ship as they said they would at the beginning. But -oh!- what adventures they have in that time frame.

In terms of the plot, it reminds me of a number in Kelly's later movie, Invitation to the Dance. In the "Ring Around the Rosy" number, we follow a bracelet as it goes from one owner to another, finally ending up with its original owner. Almost as if nothing happened at all.

Anchors Aweigh  (1945)

You can compare On the Town with another Kelly-Sinatra movie in Naval uniforms - Anchors Aweigh This musical comedy is also about sailors on shore leave; this time they are in Hollywood and meet a budding singing star played by Kathryn Grayson.

Kelly was actually going into the Navy in real life immediately after wrapping up this film. Read Anchors Aweigh and the Real Life Seaman

Java Reminisces 
Many years ago, my sister and I ran down the steps of the Rose Bowl to reenact a scene in this film. The tour guide had no idea what we were doing, but it was fun.

It's Always Fair Weather (1955)

A film that is often contrasted with On the Town is It's Always Fair Weather. It also stars Gene Kelly in uniform with two other men - Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd. This time they are members of the U.S. Army and are happy that WWII has ended. They promise to be friends forever and meet up again. It's starts with an elated dance number in the streets, but the story sobers up as the years wear on and the friends lead separate lives. The bulk of the film is about catching up with each other and the friendship that will never be the same.

It's a deeply cynical film. Where this tone might have led musicals, we can only speculate. Musicals became less profitable soon after.

Java Reminisces  
As a child, I thought this film was trying too hard to capture some of the essence and originality of earlier fare. Gene Kelly  performs an impressive tap dance on skates in the streets as he sings about loving a woman. This is vaguely reminiscent of his famous Singin' in the Rain number where he literally sings in the rain while frolicking on the streets and thinking about loving a woman.

The so-in-love-I-must-dance-in-the-streets number is common in musicals, but when Gene Kelly does it, you're thinking of his most famous version of it and any other one feels like an also-ran. The dance on skates should be appreciated for itself.

The Clock (1945)

Judy Garland Database

You may also contrast On the Town with the somber atmosphere of The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Young. It tells the story of a lonely soldier on leave in New York who finds a woman he wants to marry within minutes of seeing her. This is a common trope in classic films, and possible marriage to a stranger is often treated lightly, but not this time. See The Clock (1945) - Judy Garland's Intense Boy-Meets-Girl Drama

Java Reminisces  
I found this drama later in life, not in my childhood, and I'm glad I did. Kiddie Java would not have appreciated an MGM movie with Judy Garland not singing and dancing and smiling in it.

There are several long scenes where director/Garland's husband Vincente Minnelli has Garland quietly react to a thought; its almost a silent film in some spots. This treatment encourages you to concentrate on Minnelli's beauteous visuals. Garland is always gorgeous... no, ethereal... when Minnelli is behind the camera. It's like a love letter between the two.

This might be my favorite Judy Garland movie other than The Pirate... and A Star is Born... and...

Tomorrow is Forever (1946)

Also from the 1940s, but not from MGM, is this film about divided loyalties and love. In Tomorrow is Forever, Claudette Colbert plays a woman who loses her husband in WWI, then is on the brink of losing her teenaged son to patriotism in WWII.

Will she allow him to serve? What are their duties as citizens? The trauma is real. Read Tomorrow is Forever with Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles

Java Reminisces 
As it was with The Clock, I found this drama later in life. I was struck by the constant, driving themes of love and loyalty. Wartime decisions are not easy to make, which I'm sure the audience of the day appreciated.

Colbert's first husband (played by Orson Welles) says, "Let me love you in my own way," as he leaves for war and is later declared missing in action. Her second husband (George Brent) loves her by sticking around. Her son (Richard Long) loves his country and his mother, but is willing to disappoint her for something greater than himself.

I don't usually cry over movies, but this one had me teary-eyed.

Hit the Deck (1955)

From the same year as It's Always Fair Weather is another film about military personnel and their troubles back home. However,  Hit the Deck is a light and frothy version of 3 sailors on shore leave. It harkens back to earlier comedic films and plays.

It stars Russ Tamblyn, Tony Martin and Vic Damone as the 3 men who come home to romantic problems and family troubles. It also stars Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and all the 1950s crinoline you can handle in those big, beautiful skirts.

Java Reminisces  
I said during the Film Passion Blogathon that Hit the Deck  is the film that turned me into a classic movie nut, but it was really a combination of films. I just happened to be watching this film as child when I thought to myself, "if I claim to love these films, then I should know when the film was made and what studio made it."

The Hit the Deck cover art was right there, so I started learning its facts and comparing it with other MGM films. I'm basically doing the same thing today.

Further Resources

 What are your favorite films for Independence Day?


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"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email: java-rush@hotmail.com


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