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Advice & More November 2017

Silver Screen, Golden Years

Franksgiving

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

Younger viewers may think that Thanksgiving is all about the Pilgrims and turkey and cranberry sauce and all that, but modern Thanksgiving is also about commerce, in so far as it leads into the December holiday shopping season. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, still trying to jump start us out of the Depression, pushed Thanksgiving 1939 up a week, to the third Thursday of November.

In the Thanksgiving scene in Holiday Inn (1942), Bing Crosby plays a record of himself singing “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For,” while he dejectedly plays with his food:  An enormous turkey all to himself, and all the trimmings. Louise Beavers, who plays his cook, Mamie, sets the feast before him, and then berates him for letting rival Fred Astaire steal his best gal Marjorie Reynolds away.

This classic film is, of course, a showcase for the songs of Irving Berlin in the setting of a string of American holidays. We jump from one holiday to the next, and each one is introduced with a calendar page graphic such as an illustration of George Washington for Washington’s birthday, or an Easter lily, or a firecracker for Independence Day. But Thanksgiving is presented with a brief clip of a black and white animated cartoon of a turkey. The message might mystify younger viewers today; there is, however, a reason for his silly antics and it has to do with politics, commerce, and American heritage.

In this cartoon clip, a doleful turkey sitting on a calendar page on Thanksgiving Day – of course, the last Thursday in November – suddenly hoists himself up and walks over to the highlighted Thursday of the week before. He now chooses to occupy the third Thursday. Just as he settles himself down to nestle on that date, then the box marking the fourth Thursday in November is highlighted again as Thanksgiving, and he proceeds, with no small ruffling of the feathers, to waddle down and return to the Thursday he had previously occupied. The turkey is repeatedly teased in this manner, jumping from the third week to the fourth week of the month, until the poor, confused bird finally shrugs, giving up on trying to guess which Thursday is really Thanksgiving this year. The audience of the day knew the joke.

Younger viewers may think that Thanksgiving is all about the Pilgrims and turkey and cranberry sauce and all that, but modern Thanksgiving is also about commerce, in so far as it leads into the December holiday shopping season. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, still trying to jump start us out of the Depression, pushed Thanksgiving 1939 up a week, to the third Thursday of November.

This was intended to extend the holiday shopping season, to encourage people to shop and spend more. Most Americans followed the president’s lead, but interestingly, many New Englanders refused to follow suit and stubbornly continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday. They derisively called the Thursday before “Franksgiving” after Franklin Roosevelt. New Englanders, particularly those residing in Massachusetts, always took a rather proprietary view of Thanksgiving, a stubborn sense of ownership. Until roughly about the late 1940s, it was a much bigger holiday in New England than Christmas ever was.

Christmas as a public holiday never really got established in the New England states until about the time of the Civil War, but Thanksgiving had been celebrated there for over 200 years. In 1863, President Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official national holiday, to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

The dispute over which was the real Thanksgiving Day continued in 1940 and 1941. The stores had no complaints about an extra week of shopping, but sentiment was still strong for tradition. Afterward, and with our entrance into World War II and more pressing matters, Congress capitulated to tradition and voted to return Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday of November, where it remains today. At last, that flustered, goggled-eyed cartoon turkey can contentedly nestle down and roost on one date, undisturbed.

Today, with many store chains opening seven days a week, even on Thanksgiving Day, there no longer seems to be a need to spur holiday shopping. Like the Frankenstein monster, holiday commerce has taken on a life of its own. Many of us will see those first Christmas merchandising TV commercials and receive those first catalogues sometime in August. The idea of President Roosevelt’s trying to increase the December shopping season from four weeks to five weeks seems quaint and naïve.

This unspoken reference to the nation’s Depression-era Thanksgiving debate in Holiday Inn is one of those small, but interesting historical and cultural markers to watch for in old Hollywood films.

 

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., and several other non- fiction books on history and classic films, as well as novels. www.JacquelineTLynch.com.

Meet Jacqueline