The Idea of America: TCM September 9 Guest Hosts

This September, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) shines a light on The Idea of America, highlighting immigrants’ perceptions of The United States of America and what it means to be American, through the lens of the American movies they watched when they were young. Nine immigrants join TCM Primetime Host Ben Mankiewicz to discuss the movies that shaped their idea of the U.S. before they moved here. They explore where perception and reality aligned, and what has surprised them about life in America.

Classic Couple posed questions to the guest programmers. Their responses follow.

Airing at 8 pm ET Friday, September 9, 2022

Hemrani Vyas
Film: To Hell and Back (1955)
Hometown: For her father Ajay Vyas, Kenya
Current Residence: Atlanta, GA

Hemrani Vyas is the assistant manager of programming for TCM who developed the series “The Idea of America.” Her father, Ajay Vyas, is Indian and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. After graduating high school in Kenya, he moved to Detroit, MI, where he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was stationed around the world during his career, and is now retired in Columbus, GA.

Hemrani Vyas photographed on July 28, 2022 in Atlanta, GA for TCM’s The Idea of America

Ajay Vyas grew up as a big fan of Audie Murphy and his film To Hell and Back (1955). He had wanted to join the Army since he was a little boy, but Murphy reinforced the idea by making sure his siblings would not have a hard life with his income. When Vyas enlisted in the U.S. Army, it was even in the same company and regiment as Murphy – B Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment. He keeps the unit crest and patch as a keepsake.

Classic Couple: To Hell and Back (1955) is an autobiographical story—how did this man’s story of military service become part of now your own father’s story?  

My father idolized Audie Murphy as a child and from a very young age always dreamed of enlisting in the Army, a career not often encouraged or realized by many Indians at the time. He saw Audie sacrifice so much for his family (specifically siblings) and knew he wanted to be able to provide for his two younger sisters. After completing high school and a few years at a local college he finally decided to follow his own dream and enlist—it just so happened he was in the same infantry company as Audie Murphy (B Company, 1st battalion, 15th infantry regiment, 3rd infantry division); he’s got the unit patch to prove it! (Also seen in To Hell and Back).

Classic Couple: How did the portrayal of military service in the film compare to your father’s and your family’s experience living a military life?

It was very different. The movie portrays mainly combat operations but I related mostly to the scenes of them mainly waiting; sitting in the rain, eating food when I had the chance and basically just waiting for my next orders. As a non-drinker the club scenes didn’t really resonate for me but I did love socializing with my team and still felt the camaraderie of team work. Unfortunately the most real experiences from the movie was the loss of a team member, whether through death or them leaving the unit.

Classic Couple: As a programmer at TCM, what is the film you would most wish to program for viewers to understand the immigrant experience?

That’s a tough question but I’ll do my best!—some that focus specifically on the Indian immigrant experience and even more specifically the Indian American/British by way of India experience are Bhaji on the Beach and The Namesake. Those movies accurately portray the push/pull relationship many first generation immigrants seem to feel with the culture their parents grew up belonging to to and the one they actively grew up in.

For a more universal experience of the immigrant story I love Black Girl. It’s an incredible story of what happens when you think you’ve achieved success by moving abroad and the harsh realities that come with it. People seem to think once you get to your dream destination it’s all roses but unfortunately that is very far from the truth.

Airing at 10 pm ET Friday, September 9, 2022

Vera Petrovic
Film: Holiday Affair (1955)
Hometown: Sabac, former Yugoslavia
Current Residence: Northbrook, IL

Vera Petrovic photographed on July 28, 2022 in Atlanta, GA for TCM’s The Idea of America

Vera Petrovic was born and raised in Sabac, in former Yugoslavia. Growing up, her mother was an avid movie-goer, and she would organize trips for all the kids in her neighborhood to visit the movie theater and hour away. Vera went on to earn her law degree in Belgrade, and then moved to the U.S. in 1980 so her husband could pursue his PhD at Miami University of Ohio. They intended to move home when he completed his degree, but when civil war broke out in Yugoslavia in 1982, they committed to the U.S. and never returned. She now lives in Northbrook, IL, near Chicago, and has two children and three grandchildren.

Vera is introducing the film Holiday Affair (1949). Yugoslavian Christmas was celebrated in January with very different traditions. When she moved to the U.S., she went all in on American Christmas traditions that she had seen in the films growing up.

Classic Couple: There are many classic holiday movies. What is it about Holiday Affair (1955) that resonates with you?

Why not? Most of all it is feel good movie that deals with real people with real problems in post WWII era. The story just happened to take place during holidays in New York. How many Christmas movies we can say captures our full attention without a single Christmas song or Santa with children sitting on their lap? Yes, there is snow covered Central Park, decorated Christmas trees and a frenzy of Christmas shopping. The music is subtle and whimsical. However it’s not overbearing with holiday cheer. It is sentimental without being syrupy and mushy. The screenplay is  smart, heart warning and funny. 

The story is about Connie Ennis, a war widow with a small child, trying to build the future without the love of her life, her husband that died in the war. She is having a hard  time committing  to her long time suitor as she struggles to let go of the past. In the picture comes a new suitor that starts the whole new situation, where she finds herself attracted to Steve who may be an unstable and overly adventurous choice. Does she choose safety and reason or passion and adventure?

This holiday movie is unpretentious, witty, wise, and quirky. There is a delightful theme running throughout the movie that is irresistibly charming but not cliched, like many holiday movies are. The story is engaging and bright, funny and delightful that deals with twists and turns and a series of unforeseen coincidence, that just draws Connie even more so to Steve. Steve is an unreliable drifter and dreamer without a job or money. Carl, her suitor and fiancé, is a solid, safe choice, but boring and unexciting. 

Her son Timmy is a delightful child, too smart and wise for his age, as he sees his mom excited and smitten for the first time. Through many twists and turns Connie ends up (to Timmy’s delight) with Steve, as they embark the midnight special New Year’s Eve train for California, where Steve plans to build boats and make an honest living in the post war hard times. The scene of their encounter on the train is priceless, full of holiday cheer and hopes of the new beginning  and new adventurous future. I love how the train then turns into the toy train. 

What I love, love about this movie, is that even though it’s not obviously a Christmas movie, with angels and Christmas miracles, it has clearly but subtly depicted magic and spirit of Christmas. It is full of good will, kindness and generosity that we associate with the Christmas season. The characters are paying it forward with good deeds. It is unpretentiously Christmassy. Every character in this film is likable and decent, even in the light of conflict of interests. There are some powerful messages and lessons to take from this film  It also teaches us not to be afraid to dream, and take chances in life, as well to listen to our hearts. 

We need more of feel good Holiday Affair movies in these turbulent times. 

Classic Couple: What traditions evident in Holiday Affair has your family adopted?

My family has adopted family Christmas Eve dinners, gift giving and spreading generosity and kindness. We choose to be cheerful and festive. 

Christmas in Former Yugoslavia, and now Serbia is very toned down. It is a rather religious event. If you are not religious, there is no Christmas cheer in your house. Christmas trees are ironically decorated and gifts given on New Year’s Eve. 

Classic Couple: Is one of your family’s holiday traditions watching Holiday Affair? Other holiday movies?

Yes, our family decorates a Christmas tree, drinks eggnog, plays Christmas music, and watches holiday movies every year. We are always together for Christmas. 

I started watching Holiday Affair because my mom had to see every movie Robert Mitchum made, as she had the biggest crush on him. Discussing this movie made me want even more to make it our Christmas regular. 

Thank you TCM for showing it and letting the movie lovers know that even a small budget production can make a big impact and be memorable. 

Airing at 10 pm ET Friday, September 9, 2022

Ali Estefam
Film: Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Hometown: São Paulo, Brazil
Current Residence: Brooklyn, NY

Ali Estefam photographed on July 28, 2022 in Atlanta, GA for TCM’s The Idea of America

Ali Estefam grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, in a 23-story apartment building. She studied architecture and urbanism at the University of São Paulo, and while she was in college she became aware of the slums of the city and realized the inequality of her neighbors’ living situations. She started working in the city’s Urban Planning department, and when she decided to pursue a master’s degree, Columbia University in New York City awarded her a full scholarship. Since graduating, she is now vice president of planning and design at a public relations firm specializing in community outreach. She also volunteers at Garra, a local organization in New York that advocates for immigrant women..

Ali is introducing Cool Hand Luke (1967). “For me, this movie showcases a deep authenticity, and a refusal to conform to situations that one does not agree with, even if it means struggling,” she said. “That for me talks a lot about the idea of American persistence.”

Classic Couple: Cool Hand Luke is an anti-establishment film. What about this theme appeals to you most?
I consider myself a kind of counter-society type of person. I believe that much of what we do is dictated by social constructs and not by our true willingness. I believe that places like prisons and asylums are not necessarily places where individuals go to get better, but a meaningful way that our society found to exclude what they don’t want to face as if exclusion would make it disappear. I’ve always been interested in this topic and I currently do volunteer work with incarcerated individuals. 
Classic Couple: What scene from Cool Hand Luke is your favorite and why?
I have several favorite scenes. I love the photography of the movie in general. I like the scene after Luke’s mother dies, and he is punished because of her death and the possible mental state that the loss will put him into. It’s a sad scene but always makes me emotional. For me, it summarizes the concept of a prison, if you suppress something (an individual, an emotion), it would be as if it didn’t exist. However, for both cases, it is not a realistic point of view. 
Classic Couple: Is there a Brazilian film that you believe would increase Americans’ understanding of your home country?
There are several good Brazilian movies. Elite Squad, from Jose Padilha, shows the crime scene of some Brazilian cities and the police work. The City of God from Fernando Meirelles showcases life in the Favelas in Rio de Janeiro. My favorite is called Bicho de Sete Cabecas (seven-headed monster) and is about a young boy who is sent to a mental institution. It shows a lot about the Brazilian culture towards drugs, youth, and family relations.