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I first saw The Godfather in May 1972, three months after its release and right on the heels of my first year in grad school. I was quite relieved about the latter and joined my brother and sister-in-law in Princeton to celebrate. Let’s go to this new Mafia movie, he said; I hear it’s great. Well, it’s great all right—in the top five movies of all time on many lists—and its perfect blend of perfectly executed elements makes it worth endless re-watching. Sound, sets, screenplay, camera work, historical ambience, cast extraordinaire—it’s all there.
And such memorable scenes: Sonny at the toll booth. Michael taking out the two bad guys at the Italian restaurant. (“Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.”) The opening wedding at the Corleone estate; the horse-head in the Hollywood producer’s bed. And, still for my money one of the greatest sequences in all film history, and certainly one of the few moments in American film where you can actually feel the power of the transcendent down on earth: the counter-point montage of Michael taking vows as godfather for his nephew while his men execute the family’s five rivals. This time I especially noticed the careful balances in character (the impetuous vs. the cool) and the deft foreshadowing of plot points that would develop later. If you don’t know it already, don’t eat the oranges. Don’t even look at the oranges! Don’t go anywhere near the oranges!!
But what puts this movie ahead of almost all the rest? First, I think, is its inter-mixture of so many different film genres. It’s obviously a gangster story, and therefore also a type of and satirical commentary on the success story. (In the classic form, gangsters do in broad daylight what bankers and corporate heads do behind office doors. They flaunt the bling and the babes that the execs display in more cultivated form. But it’s still bread and the girl that certify success.) Yet The Godfather is a distinct kind of success story; it’s an immigrant saga about making it in America. There’s even a touch of the Western. Good-boy Michael Corleone weds ultra-WASP Kay Adams (!). She’s the New England schoolmarm whose job it is, in the Western, to civilize the gunman. In The Godfather she utterly fails, falling time and again for Michael’s dodges and lies as he turns into an even more ruthless Mafia chief than his father.
The storylines and their deeper types draw us in, then, but we—at least the I of spring 1972—wanted to be drawn. My cohort in graduate school hit the new conflict model in American history writing on the upswing, as it washed away all the conventional wisdom about consensus and a single distinctive “American character.” One door this opened was ethnic history; time to tell the tales of people who didn’t “melt” into bland white-bread America but kept their character and color and community. Indeed, contrary to the consensus fetish, real “character” was only available outside standard America. This set me on course for what eventually became my dissertation, and way too much of my career—seeing if in the Dutch-American community from which I hailed there was a culture distinct enough to be worthwhile.
In that ambience The Godfather seemed a dream come true. Here is a world colorful, zesty, strange, dangerous, exotic, and deeply alluring—its ‘family’ decidedly not that of Ozzie and Harriet. Here bonds of loyalty are tried and true; rules are known and enforced. Affection, tradition, wealth, and power all come together in a world that works. It all appeared so different from the 1972 America of soaring crime rates and lying presidents and Cambodian “incursions.” Hippies had headed out to their communes in the woods; Vito Corleone held together a counter-culture of his own. Coppola raises the point in his gripping opening scene, when a father who has seen the rapists of his daughter go free comes to Vito for recourse. “I believe in America,” the father weeps in heavily accented English, so I went to an American court of law. There I learned that in America law is for the well-connected; “for justice I have to see the Godfather.”
Except, this world turns out to be America, not an alternative to it. Kay Adams functions as our Vergil on the screen, as we are inducted, layer by layer, into the truth of how this family works and what it is prepared to do to hold its own. These are not lone gangsters of the classic Cagney sort; the Corleones are a corporation, the Comcast of crime. Michael insists to Kay that his father’s no worse than any politico or mogul who wields power, but he’s no better either. And once the immigrant godfather Vito passes from the scene, all the charm that once allured us goes away. Godfather II’s American sequence opens in Nevada where the Corleones have moved to keep track of their Vegas capital. Everything is pastel, artificial, an inch deep. Fittingly, Michael has to keep on knocking off family members and old retainers, one by one, until he ends the film alone, staring out at the cold water of his mountain lake retreat. He has fulfilled the lesson taught by one of the greatest American immigrant novels, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky. You gain the American world precisely by losing your soul.
What I didn’t know, that May of 1972, was how long and deep these questions would lurk in my own writing about Dutch Americans. Neither could I, or anyone else, know that in another month, a break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington would set in motion a sequence of lying, skulking, and corruption that would show the president of the United States to be Michael Corleone without the grace and good looks. Very little in American business or politics since then has given us reason to think that the world of The Godfather is not well and truly our own. So stay away from the oranges.