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Wartime propaganda takes a turn for the benign in An American Romance, a distended, sentimental Technicolor retelling of the Horatio Alger story as an endorsement of the American Way. Writer-producer-director King Vidor fleshes out the proposition that an immigrant off the boat can make his own opportunities, and the son of an immigrant can become the president of the United States. Steve Dangos (Brian Donlevy) is the living expression of this ideal. Arriving with four dollars in his pocket, he soon graduates from manual labor to foreman jobs, learns the basics of making steel, and eventually becomes a captain of industry. Steve names all of his boys after U.S. presidents. The message is conventional: because anyone can become a wealthy success in the Land of the Free, nobody has a right to complain.
Although the movie does contain a conventional romance, the love affair is with the nation itself. The fully developed immigrant story begins right at Ellis Island, where the officials redub a Czech laborer with an unpronounceable name as the simpler Steve Dangos. Steve is perfectly willing to start over fresh. He has a cousin who works as a miner in Minnesota, Anton Dubacek (John Qualen, sounding as Swedish as ever). Anton has paid for Steve's passage. But we never hear of any other relatives in the Old Country ... Steve learns English and leaves everything else behind.
Steve's rather interminable personal story is a succession of condescending set-piece scenes. Everything about immigrants is funny, and Dangos seems to know it; King Vidor plays his story about a New American at the dawn of a new century like a silent comedy. Steve comes off as a total stooge, bumbling through learning rules (without Anton he'd be lost) and having a "fun" episode investigating with a giant steam shovel -- a bit of business that has potential disaster written all over it. Steve has a "cute and funny" romance with Anna (Ann Richards), the pretty schoolmarm who teaches him to read. Brian Donlevy plays the character like a buffoon in a Preston Sturges comedy. Then we realize that the story is supposed to be taken seriously.
The drama is regularly interrupted with a series of mighty industrial montages. Beautifully photographed in Technicolor, the footage has a great historical value. We see the ore mined from giant pits hauled on boats through the Great Lakes to various steel mills. When Steve decides to be a steel-maker, we're given an equally impressive montage of the inner workings of the mills. Donlevy is right there, stoking furnaces with the other workers.
Steve's family grows with the century. When his oldest son is graduating from high school, he gives a speech about The American Dream and opportunity. At the same time Steve is toying with the flivver car he's bought. He takes it apart down to the frame, in what looks like a "he'll never get it back together" gag. No, Steve rebuilds it with an electric starter and is arrested for driving at a high speed. He partners with his son's schoolteacher Howard Clinton (Walter Abel) to start the Danton Automobile Company. Dangos isn't deterred by the problems that dogged the Tucker Automobile (as presented in Francis Coppola's rebuttal to the American Dream myth, Tucker). A company tries to buy his improvements (a roll-proof body, for one) with the aim of sidelining them, but old pal Cousin Anton pulls his life savings out his pockets, literally. One dissolve later, Danton Motors is a major American corporation. It's easy!
Although we see Steve studying books and Howard has the makings of a good businessman, none of this adds up. Steve persists in behaving like a yokel, a goofball so thick that he's consistently the last one to figure out what's going on. He is honest and he seems loyal to his workers. Ah, if only life could really be that wonderful, where innocents could advance so easily.
Naturally, Steve's big success is illustrated with a lengthy montage showing the assembly line manufacturing of Dangos' cars. It's a great sequence.
An American Romance continues to trod familiar territory. Steve's beloved oldest son goes to fight for freedom in the trenches of WW1 and doesn't come back; the movie then implies that this sacrifice is something Steve owes for his American opportunity. No mention whatsoever is made of the Great Depression, as though it never existed. Steve's cars apparently keep selling. But problems arise when the Danton workers want to unionize. Steve's own son Teddy Roosevelt Dangos (Stephen McNally) takes the side of the workers, arguing for the idea that companies should negotiate for workers as they do any other resource.
If this little civics lesson comes off as false, it's probably because the movie was made by MGM. Although King Vidor is the credited producer, the movie would seem to be some kind of "deal" picture Louis B. Mayer worked out with the War Office as a patriotic gesture. It's not unreasonable to assume that mining, steel, auto and aircraft interests paid for the expensive on-location montage shoots, and perhaps underwrote the rest of the film as well.
Everything about the Steve Dangos story fits in with Mayer's personal ideas and taste, from the painful idealization of immigrants as noble idiots to the music lessons Steve forces on his young boy. MGM studio films fairly consistently blamed the country's Depression ills on Communists, gangsters and --- labor organizers. Mayer may have seen the labor conflict in An American Romance as a magnanimous personal compromise. Although Steve Dangos is voted out of power in his own company, he retires in California as rich as Croesus, and later bounces back from retirement to help his son. Theodore started from the bottom but is now running the vast Danton industries -- now there's American opportunity for you!
The movie ends with an impressive Technicolor montage of beautiful B-17 bombers being riveted and outfitted on a vast assembly line (augmented by a matte painting). Like the other industrial montage sequences, this one is worthy of being excerpted for a school lesson, or a museum-style record of 40s-era industry. For effect, the planes roll off the assembly line with their armament installed (uh, no way) and immediately take to the sky, gleaming in the sunlight.
King Vidor is a genuine cinema pioneer who spent the 20s and part of the 1930s making truly progressive and artistic movies that, as they teach in school, expanded the horizons of cinema. Vidor's films were also socially conscious: The Crowd, Hallelujah, Our Daily Bread. This is definitely a feel-good war effort movie but something about the concept was seriously muffed. It's almost as if the show were designed to be captured by our enemies (and Allies) to promote the American way of doing things -- or to convince them that the war is only making us stronger. Frankly, in terms of structural form, what the movie really resembles is Soviet-style state-dictated propaganda.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of An American Romance looks great -- this Technicolor show transfers quite well and shows little damage. If the two-hour movie seems long now, it was cut by twenty minutes after a preview. Instead of making new optical transitions and remixing the audio, MGM cut corners and just chopped the picture and optical negatives, leaving little audio overhangs that give away the cut points.
Harold Rosson's cinematography is often very pretty, especially when Anna and Steve go courting under orange autumn skies. Those Technicolor montages are not the usual 16mm blowups, but beautiful 35mm originals. The movie is certainly a must-see for those charting the interesting career of King Vidor -- this was done just before his phenomenally expressive work in David O. Selznick's Duel in the Sun.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
An American Romance rates:
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