No. 199 | December 23, 2010
Our theme this week
Classic Christmas films
It’s a Wonderful Life works on a variety of levels. One appeal is a nostalgic one, with the film offering an idealized portrait of life from our small-town past. The world seems fairer and friendlier in Bedford Falls, where folks know their neighbors, their neighbors know them, and the rest of the big, wide world lies far away. Life seems, if not entirely wonderful, at least kinder, and in many ways, better.
Another element is the David-and-Goliath storyline. Winsome hero George Bailey, with nothing but his sense of decency and the good will of friends, takes on and triumphs over the corrupting influence of the Scrooge-inspired Mr. Potter. Score one for the little guy. Who doesn’t love to see the underdog win?
The film is a charming fantasy, as well. Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, makes a visit to save George, and though Clarence is still learning on the job, he works in wondrous ways. Clarence is the most colorful of a raft of colorful characters, though his eccentric qualities are not appreciated at Nick’s Bar when he and George visit Pottersville in the film’s fantasy sequence. (Pottersville is an interesting contrast to Bedford Falls. I’d say it looks more like our world than the beloved town of George Bailey: perhaps a sign that the Potters of the real world have prevailed. But the Pottersville of the film, though nightmarish in some respects, may seem to some viewers like more fun.)
Yet for all that, what makes It’s a Wonderful Life the remarkable film that it is, is the character of George. We follow George’s life from boyhood to fatherhood. George is ambitious, optimistic, courageous, but he’s a dreamer who never gets to live his dreams. Fate throws him a curve at every turn. George is stuck in Bedford Falls, minding his father’s building and loan, living in a “drafty old barn” of a house, married, much to his surprise, to the local girl, Mary, and now with kids. When a mishap leads to scandal, George sinks to the depths of despair, and in his lowest hour he’s about to throw himself off the town’s snowy bridge. Only with the help of the “great gift” from Clarence does George at last come to see that he has, in fact, a wonderful life. The film provides an extraordinary portrayal of an ordinary man, a fuller look at a life than we often get to see.
George was played, of course, by Jimmy Stewart, in one of his finest performances. He headed an excellent cast that includes Donna Reed as Mary, Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, and Henry Travers as Clarence. Frank Capra directed, his first film after the war, during which he made mostly documentaries.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning none, and earned a mix of good and mediocre reviews from critics. James Agee said the film was “one of the most efficient sentimental pieces since A Christmas Carol,” and though it “outrages” and “insults” it was “nevertheless recommended.” Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, called the film “a turkey dinner, with Christmas trimmings,” that while “emotionally gratifying, doesn’t fill the hungry paunch.”
The widespread belief that the movie was a flop at the box office is not quite right. The film made $3.3 million in rentals, a better-than-respectable sum for the time. It is true that the movie was forgotten, neglected by critics. In later decades it was rediscovered, and today the film ranks among the most cherished of holiday favorites. But It’s a Wonderful Life is more than a great Christmas movie. It’s a great movie, period.
As with the other films this week, I’ll leave you with a caveat: the film has been colorized—several times, in fact—but watch the black-and-white version. That’s the one you want to see.
Enjoy the holiday, all, and see you again next week. Peace!
No. 198 | December 22, 2010
Our theme this week
Classic Christmas films
Two of the three films we’re featuring this week have become classics in the years since the movies were released. Today’s story, though, was a classic long before the film was made. Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol the week before Christmas of 1843. By Christmas Eve, the first run had sold out. A new run followed, and the book through today has never been out of print. Dickens’s story has been the subject of countless adaptations (this Wikipedia page lists more than a hundred of them), making it the most popular of Christmas tales since Matthew and Luke.
Dickens was in part responsible for rejuvenating traditions of Christmas and his influence extends to how we celebrate the holiday today. His story was not one of religion but of spirit—multiple spirits, in fact. It’s a ghost story. Four ghosts in all visit the miserly and crotchety businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, a character so memorable his name has entered the language. The first is the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s long-dead partner, who offers a warning to the man to change his ways. Then Scrooge receives visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, who show him scenes of his innocent youth, of the joy in life that he is missing, and of his future neglected grave. The old man is frightened, and transformed. Scrooge opens his heart and celebrates the holiday with the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit.
The 1951 film was a British production starring Alastair Sim. It’s Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge that sets this version above the rest. He’s a grim, tormented soul, and when he talks to ghosts we believe every word of it. We also believe when he discovers the joy of the season and generosity in his heart. The world in this telling of the story seems like the world of Dickens: bleak, dark, and desperate. But a world in which the miraculous can happen. And does.
One note about watching at home, a repeat of yesterday’s caveat: the film is in black-and-white, but was colorized years later. I can’t imagine what they were thinking. In any case, go for the real thing. Watch the film as it was intended.
No. 197 | December 21, 2010
The news from Hollywood is no new Christmas movies this year or next. It’s a shame, in a way, because the season is ripe for big-screen storytelling. Holiday films have become as much a tradition as mistletoe, candy canes, and nutcrackers. On the other hand, the folks in Hollywood may be admitting they just don’t know how to make them the way they used to. No argument here.
The best Christmas films, in my mind, are the old ones. From our vantage, they hark back to earlier, simpler times, and they stand in contrast to our own age, when the spirit of the season seems to burn not so bright. But the stories in these films don’t think of themselves as old-fashioned. Typically, the world portrayed onscreen is one that’s become too modern, too skeptical, too commercial, and the theme is the reminder to step back and put aside inconsequential matters: there are more important things.
Perhaps these days we need Christmas films more than ever, and if we don’t have new ones to watch, we always have the classics. This week, we’ll look at three of the best, films that even today, years after they were made, still work their magic.
Our theme this week
Classic Christmas films
Program Note: Yes, MAD About Movies has returned! We’ll have an abbreviated line-up this week. I’ll be back again next week, as we close out 2010, with a few posts on recent movies. Starting in January, look for a new schedule. Stay tuned for more.
Imagine a world in which no one believes in Santa Claus. That’s the sad setting for this charming 1947 fantasy about a gentle old man named Kris Kringle. He comes to town, takes a job as Santa, and before he’s done he has people doubting their own disbelief. Could it be? That’s where the film takes us. There’s no need to convince anybody. It lets us muse on the possibility.
Miracle on 34th Street is a quiet film, not one to make a lot of noise about miracles and all that. No need for elves or flying reindeer or anyof the usual accessories. The magic isn’t a trick (and certainly no special effect), but comes from a warm and wonderful portrayal by Edmund Gwenn, a veteran character actor with a plump belly, a white beard, and a twinkle in his eye. He certainly looks the part (after gaining thirty p0unds to prepare for the role). Gwenn is the embodiment of good cheer, and he radiates a kindness that is truly something special. His performance earned him an Oscar, one of three for the film (the other two went to the writers).
It’s a terrific cast. Top billing went to Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, playing Doris and Fred, two friends and neighbors who develop a romance. Doris is a divorcée (the film makes little fuss about that inconvenient fact) with a daughter, Susan, a second-grader played by Natalie Wood, in one of her first roles. Other familiar names include Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jack Albertson, and Thelma Ritter (in a small but memorable appearance, and in her early forties, her film debut).
The movie has its share of classic moments: Kris rebuking the hired Santa caught drinking before the parade, skeptical Susan tugging on Kris’s beard at Macy’s, the courtroom scene with Santa on trial.
Generations of fans have made Miracle a holiday tradition, and Hollywood has attempted to extend the brand, so to speak, with a remake and several TV versions. None, though, has touched the original, which rightly deserves it place among the pantheon of holiday favorites.
One caveat for viewing at home: the film was colorized in 1993, and you’ll want to avoid that version if you can. The DVD comes with two discs; go to disc two for the black-and-white movie, the only one you want. If you’re stuck with the colorized version, turn off the color on your TV. To paraphrase a line from the film, you don’t want to see things that are not really there.
From the “They Don’t Do It Like That Anymore” Department: Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, believed the film would do better business during the summer, when audiences were bigger. He scheduled it to open in May. How did Zanuck promote a movie about Santa Claus to warm-weather audiences? He never told them what the movie was about, that’s how. Take a look at the poster above and the trailer here.
Did she really say that? Teen actress Peggy Ann Garner (at 2:50): “I tell you it’s a groovey movie!” And a couple of minutes later we get the pitch: “You’ll Love ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’ It’s Hilarious! Romantic! Delightful! Charming! Tender! Exciting! …”