“I came to America in 1914 by way of Philadelphia,” says Sam Krichinsky, the protagonist of Barry Levinson’s drama of Jewish immigrants who settle in Baltimore. “I didn’t know what holiday it was, but there were lights and I walked under them,” Sam recounts.

The holiday is the Fourth of July and the lights are fireworks. In America, Sam’s life is full of promise. He goes into business with his brothers, plays music on the weekends, gets married and has children. All the while, he expresses thanks for the country he calls home. Indeed, the film repeatedly returns to subsequent July Fourths, and to Thanksgiving Day, during which the broader family gathers and engages in sacred rituals, including the cutting of the turkey.

Avalon (1990) traces the lives of three generations of Krichinskys, capturing the evolution of 20th century America, especially its second half. The Krichinskys move to the suburbs—described as places with bigger lawns and fewer people under the same roof—but the Krichinsky brothers gradually grow apart emotionally as well as geographically. Television takes over their lives and captures the imagination of the country. Sam’s entrepreneurial, can-do spirit passes on to his son, Jules, a door-to-door salesman who eventually sets up shop with his cousin to sell TV sets. Jules then moves from selling TVs to selling advertising time on TV programs.

Sam sees it all, and he takes the measure of family “progress” as his relationships with his siblings deteriorate. In a nursing home, Sam again remembers his arrival in America, and we see him walk under an awning with the words, “Our flag was still there.” Sam, like the country he loves, hasn’t always lived up to his ideals, and his successes have been tempered by setbacks.

Though melancholy, Avalon is a beautiful picture of family life as a microcosm of the American experience.


YANKEE DOODLE DANDY:  Service

Our military fights for our country, but citizens of the United States serve their country in other ways as well. Yankee Doodle Dandy, the story of songwriter George M. Cohan, exemplifies a patriotic sense of service and love of country.

Released in 1942, the film has Cohan tell his life story directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who calls him to the White House for reasons not made clear until the film’s closing moments. In the interim, Cohan explains how he, the author of the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy," really was born on the Fourth of July (in 1878) performed vaudeville routines across the country with his family, and eventually found fame.

“You Irish Americans carry your love of country right up front, like a flag,” the president tells Cohan, acknowledging the Rhode Island-born entertainer’s heritage. Driven by a combination of ambition, pride and patriotism, Cohan conquers Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, writing such popular tunes as “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and the World War I anthem “Over There.”

Asked about the secret to his success, Cohan explains, “I’m an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys want to see.” When his confidence is dealt a blow by the failure of one of his plays, Cohan takes out a newspaper ad, publicly apologizing for the play’s poor reception among the public. When the nation goes to war, Congress dubs Cohan’s song “Over There” as “the American victory hymn.”

The film closes with the president awarding Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor. When Cohan demurs, noting that he’s not a military veteran, Roosevelt explains, “ A man may give his life to his country in many different ways.” The film’s patriotic music reminds us of just how much Cohan contributed to the country’s morale, especially during wartime.

If the film has a misstep, it’s in showing a performance done in blackface—not uncommon in its time, but difficult for modern audiences to watch or approve.

The film, a giant hit, showcases star James Cagney’s talent as a dancer, and it won him an Oscar for Best Actor. Later in his life, Cagney cited “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as his personal favorite among all the films he in which he starred.