Technically, between THE GRASS HARP and OUT TO SEA there was to be this film. It was to star Matthau as a Democratic ex-President, whose one term in office was following the one term of his rival, Republican ex-President Lemmon, and both would be followed by Republican incumbent Dan Ackroyd. But Matthau could not be in the film, presumably due to health problems. Instead, his role was filled in by James Garner. Although one likes watching the chemistry of Matthau and Lemmon in their comedies, the substitution of Garner is probably for the best. Garner's character is like Bill Clinton or John Kennedy, a ladies' man type. In fact, his wife is divorcing him during the film (we only see her briefly when he is elected President). Somehow Matthau could not have fit that type of role.
The 1990s also saw several pictures that tackled the problems of the Presidency. The best of these was THE American PRESIDENT, wherein Michael Douglas tries to balance his job's duties, with his performance ratings, and his falling in love with a woman whose political agenda can be used to bash him (Annette Benning). There was also DAVE, which was a variation on an old Akim Tamiroff film THE MAGNIFICENT FRAUD, wherein a double (KEVIN KLINE) finds he must continue to play the role of the President when the President (who is corrupt) has a devastating stroke. There the double finds himself falling in love with the First Lady (SIGOURNEY WEAVER - who reciprocates), and fighting an unscrupulous, power-hungry chief of staff (FRANK LANGELLA). MY FELLOW Americans fits in with this pair of films in continuing the trend.
Lemmon wins his term as President by defeating his Democratic rival Garner. But four years later Garner defeats incumbent Lemmon. But four years after that Garner is defeated by Lemmon's former Vice President Ackroyd. In the third year of his term, Ackroyd is told by his chief of staff, Bradley Whitford (ironically a member on the television series THE WEST WING currently), that a major financial scandal involving Ackroyd is about to be revealed, and will finish him politically. Ackroyd and Whitford decide to kill the scandal by framing Lemmon for taking the bribes involved. But Lemmon is tipped off about the scandal by news reporter Sela Ward (seeking an exclusive), and Garner learns of it from Democratic Party head Wilfrid Brimley (and encouraged to check into it with the possibility of being renominated for the Presidency again). When the key man in the scandal is shot and killed by a rogue CIA man (Everett McGill, in an exceptionally good, creepy performance), the lives of the two ex-Presidents are in danger. They are forced to join forces to prove Ackroyd's perfidy. They are also forced to confront each other and their own failings.
The reason the film works is it forces the audience to think of what is wrong with the political system. The initial ten minutes, with it's rapid turnover of one term Presidents, mouthing the typical clichés, reminds us that our leaders (with rare exceptions) rarely do more than protect their political hides by not doing anything that would really rock things. This is similar to the situation in THE American PRESIDENT where Douglas will not confront his Republican rival, Richard Dreyfus, who is questioning the influence of Benning on the President's policies, and who is willing to make a deal to pass some cosmetic, worthless "crime bill" instead of tackling the pro-gun lobby.
In MY FELLOW Americans the moment of truth is when both ex-Presidents learn that their mediocre policies cost a nice family their job and their home. Garner finally shows how fed up he is, towards the end, when he tells Lemmon that he is sick of thinking of how little he really accomplished in the four years he was President, and how he wants to demolish Ackroyd's corrupt administration because it is what the starry eyed believers of Democracy expect their Presidents to do.
The cast was quite in the film, but one wishes Lauren Bacall had had more scenes with Lemmon (her husband in the movie), and that Esther Rolle had been in a few more scenes as the White House cook. But otherwise it is a good Garner/Lemmon comedy, even though it was to have been a Matthau/Lemmon film.