Program Notes: America America (1963)

All Kansas City Public Library locations will close at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, November 26, and will remain closed all day Thursday, November 27, for Thanksgiving.

Most films about the immigrant experience begin with the protagonist’s arrival in a new land. America America, though, ends with a shot of the Statue of Liberty as its hero sails into New York Harbor. It’s the physical and emotional journey he takes to get there that interested filmmaker Elia Kazan.

Indeed, this 1963 film — Oscar nominated for best picture, screenplay, director and art direction (it won in the last category) — is inspired by the true story of Kazan’s uncle, the first member of his family to emigrate to America.

When he began raising funds for America America in the early ‘60s, Elia Kazan was both a critical and commercial favorite, having established an amazing track record with films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Splendor in the Grass (1961).

The Golden Door film series complements the exhibit Emma Lazarus: Voice of Liberty, Voice of Conscience, now on display at the Central Library.

Film Screening:
America America (1990)
Saturday, Sept. 3 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library Special introduction by Robert Butler

Related Event:
Esther Schor: Emma Lazarus
Thursday, Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Yet Kazan’s triumphs weren’t enough to attract money for this very personal but commercially unpromising project.

Eventually America America was filmed on a budget slashed to the bone. Lack of money may explain why the film wasn’t shot in color, but ultimately cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s black-and-white images — sometimes the movie looks eerily like a documentary — became its strongest element, giving America America an authenticity that transcends even some dramatic missteps.

Basically this is an epic in three acts.

It begins in the 1890s in Turkey. Young Stavros (Stathis Gialellis) has grown up as part of a beleaguered minority. He’s a Greek, and the Turks in charge regard his sort with thinly veiled contempt.

With nothing but menial jobs, political persecution and perhaps a futile revolution in his future, Stavros is desperate for a way out. He begins laying plans to leave his village.

Making his escape will take years of his life and nearly three hours of screen time.

Act II finds Stavros penniless in the capital of Constantinople, having encountered numerous setbacks and dangers to get there.

Somewhat unscrupulously, Stavros allows himself to be groomed by a rich merchant (Paul Mann) as a likely suitor for his daughter (Linda Marsh). But it’s not love Stavros is seeking; all he wants is enough cash to get him on a boat to America, the land of opportunity.

Act III unfolds on the voyage across the Atlantic, where only an act of self-sacrifice by a friend allows our hero to complete his journey.

America America was not a commercial success, and even the critics were divided.

Writing in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther praised the film’s “poetic flavor...an assault upon the senses that may leave one completely overwhelmed.”

Crowther was particularly generous to the young actor Stathis Giallelis, calling him “incredibly good” in “putting fire and spirit into the role, as well as a poignant revelation of the naivete and gentleness of youth.”

At the other end of the spectrum was critic Pauline Kael, who felt the central role was miserably miscast (“Giallelis doesn’t convince you that he has the will or the passion — or the brains — to realize his dream...”). Moreover, she found the film ripe with “unconvincing melodrama.”

But in recent years America America has undergone a re-evaluation. Reading the user reviews of the film posted on the Internet Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com), it becomes apparent that this film, one of Kazan’s last efforts, continues to pack a punch. More than one contributor refers to it as an unacknowledged masterpiece.

A half century after its initial release, then, the film is still finding new devotees.

See Bob's general introduction to The Golden Door film series.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

Comments:

Kazan's autobiography

Elia Kazan's autobiography, A Life, is a great read -- it's really long, but never bogs down. I highly recommend it.

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