Remember when I suggested (implicitly) that you should watch The Godfather Part III alongside Thor: The Dark World because of all the juicy family drama? Well, now I’m suggesting that you watch The Godfather Part II alongside An American Tail (yes, 80’s kids, that’s the first Fievel movie). Despite the radically different audiences to which these two films were marketed, the similarity is actually pretty obvious: both follow the adventures of a European boy (or young male mouse) who arrives in New York Harbor during America’s golden age of immigration. If you watch them together, you’ll see all kinds of connections. Here’s a disclaimer: I’m writing this post as a movie fan, not a historian. I’m getting some relevant details from Wikipedia and drawing my own conclusions. If you want a thorough and thoughtful history of American immigration, don’t read this. If you want an idea for a movie marathon that will involve your mind and your heart, keep reading.
1. An American Tail (1986). The Mousekewitz family leaves Russia, fleeing violence,* and sails to America in the crowded third-class hold of a ship. Their young son, Fievel, falls overboard and washes up in New York Harbor, alone and afraid. During his brief stint as a street urchin, Fievel runs afoul of a nasty underground (literally) crime boss, attends a political rally, and has some cross-cultural immigrant experiences when he visits an Irish wake and makes friends with an Italian teen. After participating in a successful plot to break the crime boss’s hold on the community, he is reunited with his family.
Oh, also–the Mousekewitzes are mice fleeing cat violence, Fievel is fished out of the harbor by pigeons, the crime boss is a cat, and Fievel also makes friends with a harmless (vegetarian, tender-hearted, and silly) cat during his underground adventures. That Italian “teen” is a mouse, and so is pretty much everyone else in the movie.
But none of this detracts from the seriousness of the story. An American Tail is still an excellent film about family, fear, injustice, resilience, and American diversity. The animation is timeless, the story is taut and exciting, and the music, scored by James Horner (whom we miss), is emotionally pitch-perfect. Some of the songs have become classics. Even if you’ve never seen this movie, you’d probably recognize the sad split-screen scene in which Fievel and his sister both sing “Somewhere Out There” against the background of an enormous full moon. And “There Are No Cats in America,” the rousing number sung in the hold of the ship, is basically the rodent version of Bruce Springsteen’s “American Land”–both are deliriously hopeful songs of immigrant dreams that America could never fulfill.
Much of this movie’s action takes place against the heavily symbolic backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, whose construction is completed during the course of the story. In An American Tail, the Statue represents hope. It’s there, to a nest in Liberty’s torch, that Fievel is first taken by the pigeons, and it’s there that the head pigeon (who is French, to represent the Statue’s designers) tells him, in song, to “never say never.” The Statue is one of the last images we see in the film as well. The overall tone of An American Tail is celebratory of the opportunities that American affords, yet it isn’t blindly so. The irony of “There Are No Cats in America” sounds a cautionary note: no country can fulfill the wildest dreams of the desperate.
2. The Godfather Part II (1974). By the time the silent 9-year-old Vito Andolini arrives at Ellis Island (alone, like Fievel) in 1901, escaping a vendetta in his hometown of Corleone, Sicily, the Statue of Liberty has been finished for 15 years. An immigration official misreads Vito’s identification tag and writes down his name as “Vito Corleone,” and the rest is history–movie history, anyway.
I’m not going to summarize The Godfather Part II for you. It’s 200 minutes long. (An American Tail is only 80.) It has two major plot lines, and both of them sprawl over giant swaths of time and space. For the purposes of this post, I’ll say that among all the film’s many themes (such as family, fear, injustice–actually, they’re really similar to An American Tail‘s themes), immigration–specifically, what we mean when we say that America is a melting pot–is a big one. And that’s not only true in the young Vito, 1920’s-NYC plot line, but also in the plot line that takes place in 1958, after both the Corleone family and America have gotten a lot bigger and a lot more complicated.
I’ll give you one example: listen to the vitriolic ugliness of Senator Geary’s bigoted comments in the privacy of Michael Corleone’s study at the beginning of the movie, and then listen to the senator’s awkwardly well-rehearsed speech about his “Italian-American friends” in the hearing scene near the end. Official tolerance masks private hatred in the hypocrisy (as Michael rightly calls it) of relations between politics and crime.
The Statue of Liberty isn’t a major symbol in The Godfather Part II, but young Vito and his fellow passengers take a slow, lingering look at it while they are still aboard the ship. (Three-hour movies can afford a lot of slow, lingering looks.) Some of the fellow passengers seem enraptured by the promise of America, but the young boy’s face is inscrutable. There’s another shot a few minutes later in which Vito’s face is juxtaposed with a reflection of the Statue. Again, he doesn’t appear to have any grand hopes. For him, arriving in America simply means that he isn’t dead yet.
So, here’s the plan: block off five hours of your life, get your hands on these two films, and prepare to laugh, cry, and think. After that, you might want to watch Fievel Goes West (a challenging exploration of the meaning of Manifest Destiny…well, sort of) and The Godfather (which opens with the line, “I believe in America”). Stay tuned for more movie marathon recommendations!
*The violent event at the beginning of the film appears to be a cross between an attack by Cossack marauders and an anti-Jewish pogrom. There are overtones of both.