Memorial Day is truly a unique American holiday. It is often confused with Veteran’s Day about its meaning and its purpose. For those who do not know, Memorial Day is a holiday celebrated to remember the fallen American soldiers, especially those of foreign wars, while Veteran’s Day is a holiday to celebrate all American soldiers and Veterans. Memorial Day is a National holiday that falls on the last Monday in May where post offices, banks and other places of business are closed. Veteran’s Day, which always falls upon November 11, is not the same, meaning some businesses close for the day and others do not.
Therefore, on Memorial Day, one can take the day off and devote the day to something they would like to do. Most people take vacations. Others spend the day catching up on errands, housework or even sleep. And Cable TV stations all over the nation devote the day to a marathon with some sort of theme, like a particular TV show or several similar movies.
Let’s take a moment and go through the latter option. Let’s say you wanted to spend the day watching several movies but you are tired of the standard series’ films like Harry Potter or Star Wars. You want to celebrate the day and its purpose. You want to watch movies that celebrate the American spirit. And there was no better time for American Cinema than the time between the Great Depression and World War II, also known as the Golden Age of Movies. Here, I will discuss 10 films that are each American classics in their own right and why they are musts for a Memorial Day Marathon. They are listed in chronological order.
The Gold Rush (1925)
One of the most iconic American cinema images is that of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. Chaplin could do it all. He not only starred in his many silent film comedies but also wrote, directed, produced and even composed these films. His innocent looking character often found himself in several amusing and interesting situations. In The Gold Rush, Chaplin’s character finds himself in the Alaskan wilderness during the time stated in the title. The prospectors of the American West were pursuing their own vision of the American Dream. And in Chaplin’s film, the period gets full comedic treatment and it is an absolute delight. So many images from the film are memorable and became definitive of American Silent Era Comedy. My personal favorite is watching Chaplin’s Tramp interacting with the gruff prospector he shares a remote cabin with (played with great silent gusto by Mack Swain). And who could forget Chaplin entertaining dinner guests by making two dinner rolls dance or the starving Tramp desperately eating his own boot.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Though it is a controversial choice because of the image of Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy,” the story of The Jazz Singer could not be more American. It is the tale the Jewish boy Jakie Rabinowitz (played by Jolson) who dreams of becoming a singer in night clubs and theatres to the disapproval of his Rabbi father, who has his own vision of his son becoming cantor at the Temple. It is the simplest of conflicts between Father and Son that has been a staple of several films (and other media) before and after. But it also has the added detail of Jakie wanting the traditions of American jazz and not that of his father’s old world. It is a constant struggle that is doubly enhanced by the film being the first motion picture to utilize sound technology. Most of the action happens in traditional silent film style, but when Jolson sings songs, the sound is literally coming out of his mouth. The most touching scene is when he sings Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” to his mother. When Jolson says “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!,” audiences in 1927 truly believed it.
42nd Street (1933)
Once The Jazz Singer had opened and had been a huge success, the Sound Era had arrived. And of course, the most natural genre to become popular was the musical. There is no better film musical of the 1930’s than 42nd Street. Not only does it have some of the best songs of the Tin Pan Alley era, but it also has the most iconic Busby Berkeley dance numbers that have become film lore (like Ginger Rogers leading the “We’re In the Money” number, which is a personal favorite of mine). In addition, it also has a truly American “showbiz” story. It is the story of a wide-eyed girl named Peggy Sawyer (played by Ruby Keeler) who comes to New York to become a dancer on Broadway. She impresses the producer-director so much that she becomes the understudy to the demanding leading lady. And when the diva hurts herself and is unable to perform, Peggy goes on and becomes a star. A true Depression Era musical that promoted the American Dream and how it could happen to anyone (in any form!)
It Happened One Night (1934)
Some of the best films of this Golden Age were the Romantic Comedies that truly defined the genre. One of the best of the era was Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. It is perfect for Memorial Day because it is a Romantic Comedy and Road Movie all in one that uses the American Dream image in reverse. Rich girl Claudette Colbert runs from her domineering father to try to marry the man she loves (or thinks she loves) and along the way she meets slick reporter Clark Gable. Of course, romance blossoms between the two opposites and Colbert (in an absolutely charming performance) must choose between her wealthy lifestyle and the gruff lifestyle of Gable’s. The film also is legendary for fact that it was the first movie to sweep the Academy Awards winning Best Picture, Best Director for Capra, Best Actor for Gable, Best Actress for Colbert and Best Screenplay. Only two other films have since matched that record (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991).
There is no genre more American than the Cowboy Western. And there is no more iconic Western star than that of John Wayne. And there is no more iconic Western director than John Ford. Stagecoach is the perfect American Western Film. Its simple (yet nuanced) story and colorful characters (especially that of Thomas Mitchell’s alcoholic doctor that won him an Oscar) are the best examples of the genre. John Wayne’s entrance itself is so memorable it must be seen to be believed.
Sergeant York (1941)
For Memorial Day, we must have a soldier story. Sergeant York is the perfect example of Soldier Drama. Starring Gary Cooper as Alvin York, the real-life soldier who became the most decorated soldier in World War I. Cooper gives a touching (and Oscar-winning) portrayal of a man who begins as a bar-fighting, gunslinging Tennessee farmer who has a religious awakening and chooses not to become angry or violent ever again. But then WWI begins, and after failing to avoid the draft as a conscientious objector, York begins to understand the point and even the honor of fighting for a purpose, especially one’s own country. One of the most memorable scenes is when York is trying to explain is religious views to the draft board and is given a stirring speech/pep talk about the glory and honor in fighting for the country and for democracy.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Yes, Gary Cooper makes the list twice. He followed up his Oscar-winning work in Sergeant York by taking on the tale of another American legend, Baseball great Lou Gehrig. America’s National pastime, Baseball was struck a mortal blow in 1939 when Yankee legend Lou Gehrig retired from the game because of his health problems (Gehrig was beginning to show symptoms of ALS, which is now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). In 1942, director Sam Wood cast Gary Cooper as Gehrig and poignantly told the story of Gehrig’s rise to legendary status, health struggle and eventual retirement. Cooper is once again brilliant and recreates Gehrig’s immortal words on Yankee Stadium’s field: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” This speech always brings tears to my eyes.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
George M. Cohan is one of America’s greatest American Musical composers. His statue stands in Herald Square in New York City. Some of his best songs are true American standards. In Yankee Doodle Dandy, his life is portrayed to great delight by James Cagney. Cagney, who was primarily known for his gangster movies of the 1930’s, put on his tap shoes and warmed up his voice to play Cohan, who like Chaplin did it all (composing, directing, producing and starring). His stirring medley of the title number and “Give My Regards to Broadway” is a true highlight of the film. But the strength in the film is Cagney’s dramatic scenes. His struggle to prove himself as a pure American and proud of his country and his work shines through the power in Cagney’s performance. It is an amazing performance that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1942.
Quite possibly the best film on this list. Quite possibly one of the best films ever. Though the story takes place in Morocco, it is a story that tugs at the patriotic heart strings of American audiences. Humphrey Bogart as America’s ultimate anti-hero and Ingrid Bergman as the lady love he loses but will always love make American cinema’s most romantic couple. There are so many iconic images and scenes in this film that it would take its own article to talk about its brilliance. But it should be included in a Memorial Day Marathon simply because of the scene in which Ilsa’s husband (played by Paul Heinreid) is angered by the German soldiers singing loudly and gallantly strides over to the bandstand and commands them to play “Les Marseillaise” (the French national anthem). The entire bar erupts in the tune and audiences are moved by this act of defiance and patriotism. In fact, it is my father’s favorite scene (he teared up the last time we watched it on Turner Classic Movies).
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Though the film is not a favorite of mine, it is a classic soldier movie. In fact, it is one of the most touching. It deals with the struggle that World War II soldiers had to go through when returning home and readjusting to their lives again. The great Frederich March leads a dynamic ensemble cast in William Wyler’s Oscar-winning film. The film’s heart is in the performance of real-life amputee Harold Russell (who also won an Oscar) as a soldier returning with both his arms missing as a result of a war injury.
These are 10 of the best films to watch on Memorial Day because they speak to the iconic images of America’s history, spirit and heart. Which is truly what remembering America’s fallen soldiers died for. Support Our Troops and keep them in your thoughts and prayers. Pray they come home safe and soon. I dedicate this article to every American soldier: past, present and future. Thank You for your sacrifice.