“Every time a bell rings… an Angel get its Wings!!”
As the holidays approach it’s time to talk Christmas movies. Thanks to television programming in the 1970s and 1980s, when director Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) seemed to play continuously in December (public domain status meant no rental costs for stations), there is little question about America’s favorite yuletide picture. The trials and tribulations faced by Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey have forever caught the country’s holiday spirit. Before examining this watershed work, it bears noting that Hollywood’s Christmas movie legacy has a strong 1940s connection.
The greatest competition for Capra’s work are “Miracle on 34th Street” and “The Bishop’s Wife” (both 1947). The former chronicles the life and sometimes hard times of a modern-day Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn, in an Academy Award-winning turn) working at Macy’s department store. “The Bishop’s Wife” (Bishop’s Wife [VHS]) tracks the assistance of a suave angel (Cary Grant) to a fund-raising campaign for a new church. (If the children from the latter film seem familiar–Karolyn Grimes and Bobby Anderson–it is because they appeared together in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”)
Two additional December favorites from the 1940s are “Holiday Inn” (1942) and “Going My Way” (Going My Way [VHS]) (1944). “Holiday Inn” stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire singing a host of Irving Berlin holiday favorites, including the Oscar-winning “White Christmas.” Though a thin plot, about the establishment of a country inn open only on holidays, it is strongly recommended over the partial remake, “White Christmas“(1954).
“Going My Way” finds Crosby playing crooning crackerbarrel priest Father O’Malley. Second only to “Gone With the Wind” in box office receipts at the time of its initial release, the film went on to dominate at the Academy Awards, winning Oscars for best picture, director (Leo McCarey), story (McCarey), actor (Crosby), supporting actor (Barry Fitzgerald), and best song (“Swinging on a Star”).
Capra was a friend and major McCarey fan, and he honored “Going My Way” by featuring the sequel title, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (The Bells of St. Mary’s (Colorized) [VHS]) (1945), in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Near the latter’s close, the reborn George Bailey retraces his “Christmas Carol”-like steps through a Bedford Falls which would not have existed without him. On the marquee of the town’s theater, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is playing. Capra underlines this by having Bailey shout, “Merry Christmas, movie house!” Thus, this McCarey film, with the enchantingly improvised children’s Christmas program, fittingly serves to finalize the saving of Bailey’s life. Once he returns to his home, Bailey’s friends have taken up a collection and saved his financial life as well.
These are the bona fide 1940s holiday classics, but the decade is rich in additional Christmas movies. For instance, Barbara Stanwyck stars in two such entertaining outings–”Remember the Night” (1940) and “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945). The former story is especially moving, as Fred MacMurray plays a prosecutor failing in love with Stanwyck’s shoplifter during Christmas court recess. The sentimental story works because of Preston Sturges’ wonderful script, his last picture before becoming one of Hollywood’s first writer/directors. (Sturges must have had the holidays on his mind in 1940, because later in the year he wrote and directed “Christmas in July [VHS],” a winsome comedy about an impoverished character, played by Dick Powell, who mistakenly believes he has won a slogan contest and plays summertime Santa for the neighborhood.) The second Stanwyck picture finds her playing a recipe writer who hosts a sailor for Christmas dinner in order to impress her boss (Sydney Greenstreet). The picture hasn’t much in the way of plot, but the seasonal developments are still effective.
The 1940s were also good for several peripheral holiday favorites in which Christmas is important, yet not necessarily central to the movie. Besides the aforementioned “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” a strong candidate for this category would be director Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), with Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart as two holiday co-workers who don’t realize that they are lonely hearts pen pals. (Writer/director Nora Ephron loosely remade this as “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998.) A not-to-be-avoided companion piece to “Shop” would be “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944). with a Christmas segment featuring Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” In fact, “St. Louis” director Vincente Minnelli wanted to end the picture with the Christmas portion, but the M-G-M powers that be had him tack on the World’s Fair conclusion.
Peripheral favorites include yet another 1940s film starring Barbara Stanwyck. The Capra-directed “Meet John Doe” (1941). Stanwyck plays a reporter helping to create a puppet demigod (Gary Cooper)who eventually opts to do the right thing. The Christmas Eve conclusion finds Cooper’s title character in desperate suicidal straits (anticipating Capra’s George Bailey), before the people come to the rescue by convincing Doe that his life has made a difference to others. Indeed, the Christmas/Christ overtones are so strong for Bailey and Doe that some viewers might not want to classify “Meet John Doe” as at quasi-holiday film.
The only modern (since 1960) movie to give this 1940s Christmas core any serious competition is the inspired “A Christmas Story” (A Christmas Story [Blu-ray]) (1983), from humorist Jean Shepherd’s comic memoir, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.” Appropriately, this exception merits a period asterisk, since it is set in the 1940s. Peter Billingsley is charming as a child obsessed with the ultimate 1940s Christmas present–a regulation Red Ryder air rifle. The poor lad must comically cope with put-upon parents (marvelously realized by Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon), who are afraid he would put his eyes out with the BB gun.
Even revisionist holiday films have drawn from this 1940s connection. For example. one of the rare knocks against these Christmas classics is that they do not include Americans of color. So, when Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington addressed this blind spot with “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996), they were remaking “The Bishop’s Wife.” When 1970s feminists complained that these holiday standards were too paternalistic, producer/actress Marlo Thomas remade “It’s a Wonderful Life” with a woman’s slant in a TV movie entitled “It Happened One Christmas” (1977). With Thomas in the Bailey role and Cloris Leachman as her second-class guardian angel.
All this is not to say, of course, that there are no decent modern holiday films without 1940s ties. I am especially taken with the 1984 TV movie, “A Christmas Carol,” featuring a fascinating interpretation of Scrooge by George C. Scott. This is my favorite version of Dickens’ timeless, often-adapted Christmas fable. The Patrick Stewart version of A Christmas Carol is also notable. Speaking of this story, I am reminded of my favorite guilty pleasure holiday movie–the Bill Murray “Scrooged“(1988), with a memorable turn by Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present. I must note a special almost 1940s Christmas movie–the hilarious “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951), with Bob Hope in the title role of a Damon Runyon story. (The comedian also sings “Silver Bells.”) 1951 is also the year of A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims as Scrooge. Kelsy Grammer did A Christmas Carol: The Musical version in 2004.
So what is it about holiday pictures, 1940s or otherwise, that draws us in? A closer examination of “It’s a Wonderful Life” provides a guideline. First, like most Capra movies, George Bailey’s story is essentially populist–the basic belief that the superior and majority will of the common person is constantly threatened by a usurping, sophisticated, evil few. For Stewart’s character, this means forever doing battle with the evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), an American take tin the figure of Scrooge, just as the film itself owes much to “A Christmas Carol.” (based on the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)
“It’s a Wonderful Life [Blu-ray]” might have been subtitled, “Let George Do It.” Throughout his life, Bailey sacrifices his dreams (of travel and adventure) to advance the common good and thwart the suffocating money dominance of Potter’s banker. The instrument of this one-man crusade is the Bailey Savings and Loan–the common person’s alternative to Potter. Stewart’s character never means to make this his life’s work, but a series of events, beginning with the untimely death of his father (the company founder), ultimately sentence him to being the eternal Good Samaritan. By the picture’s close, however, George’s sacrifices are symbolically repaid by the inherent goodness of people–family and friends.
Before leaving this “Life” kindness factor, two compassionate supporting players merit some attention–Bedford Falls’ town cop (Ward Bond) and taxi driver (Frank Faylen). The character names of this helpful small-town duo would seem to have been appropriated by another filmmaker (Jim Henson) who embraces the notion of inherent goodness of characters. In “Life,” Capra generously sprinkles the names and good deeds of Bert (Bond) and Ernie (Faylen) throughout the movie. One cannot help but think with each repetition that Henson was encouraged to realize creatively the fundamental populist axiom: “Goodness begets goodness.”
The fantasy element
Going hand-in-hand with this brotherhood-of-man scenario is a second pivotal holiday film component–the fantasy element. Unlike earlier Capra films, such as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington“(1939). The almost unnatural sweetness of George Bailey and others is made more palatable by fantasy, The cynical viewer can suspend his sense of disbelief, since one does not question the world of fantasy, (For instance, when watching “The Wizard of Oz,” (The Wizard of Oz (Three-Disc Emerald Edition) [Blu-ray]) no one complains, “Why, monkeys can’t fly!”)
This might better be demonstrated by a brief “Miracle on 34th Street” aside. Its writer/director, George Seaton, was a major fan of Capra. Though “Miracle” is an award-winning story (Seaton won a screenplay Oscar), it borrows from Capra’s “Mr. Deeds,” (Mr Deeds Goes to Town [VHS]) except for one thing–fantasy. In “Mr. Deeds,” the title character (Gary Cooper) inherits a fortune, which he attempts to give away. Evil banking elements try to discredit him, because it will come out that they have mismanaged the cash. A sanity hearing is convened to invalidate him, and, for much of the proceedings, Deeds is so demoralized he makes no attempt to defend himself.
In “Miracle,” the benevolent Deeds becomes fantasy’s ultimate giver, Kris Kringle, and once again an evil minority attempts to discredit him with a sanity hearing. Like Deeds, a demoralized Kris initially loses faith. Not surprisingly, both scenarios eventually end happily, but, whereas Deeds seems more unrealistically good with each passing year, Kris Kringle is Kris Kringle. We can accept fantasy without compromising our reality credentials, invoking the “it’s just a fairy tale” alibi. Even if we succumb to more sentimentality than we would care to admit, the Christmas connection encourages us to cut humanity more slack (the inherent goodness factor), at least for one month of the year.
A third holiday film trait showcased in “It’s a Wonderful Life” embraces a worldview that appears to look to the past, when issues and problems seemed to be less complex. Like many populist works, even when “Life” premiered, it seemed to embrace traditions and values more common to an earlier America. With the passage of time, this nostalgia factor has increased for holiday films made and/or set in the 1940s, such as the childhood significance of getting a regulation Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Real holidays are stressful enough: I don’t pine for additional doses in my Christmas fare.
Interestingly enough, this is nicely demonstrated by the high-profile “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Despite its now celebrated status, the picture lost money when it was initially released. Generally a hit with American critics (though widely panned in Great Britain), it proved to be too dark for many average viewers in this country, just as had been the case with “Meet John Doe.” When given a choice, viewers tend to take, say, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” over “Prancer” (both 1989), the latter a poignant story about a troubled girl who finds an injured reindeer just before Christmas.
The nostalgia factor in populism sometimes hits been criticized by reviewers such its Pauline Kael, the former film critic for The New Yorker. “Too conservative” is the complaint. Yet, honoring tradition can still he something progressive. This is perfectly demonstrated by the takeover of “The Bishop’s Wife” into “The Preacher’s Wife.” Regardless of which race fills the cast, this remains a story about the power of Christmas made ever so titillating by the visit of it rather romantically sexy angel. (This time, though, the angel Dudley keys more on a minister’s problem marriage than funding for a new church.)
Nostalgia can play upon nostalgia, too. That is, just as holiday movies can time-trip viewers to a comforting past, the film experience itself can be part of a rite-of-passage nostalgia. Just as my father introduced me to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I had the exhilaration of first showing Capra’s masterpiece to nay children.
A fourth Christmas film characteristic found in “It’s a Wonderful Life [Blu-ray]” is that of religious faith. Early on in the film, one hears heavenly voices discussing the plight of George Bailey. Eventually, one of these figures, the second-class angel Clarence Odd-body (Henry Travers), joins Stewart’s character on Earth. Capra is neither preachy nor sanctimonious, however. He is affectionately casual throughout, as if aiming to please that 1940s father figure depicted by painter Norman Rockwell, who, with a modest sense of guilt, has stayed home from church to read the Sunday newspaper.
In conjunction with keeping religion low key (not unlike his friend McCarey casting Bing Crosby as a priest), Capra dropped the originally scripted plans to depict heaven visually. Moreover, by making Clarence an antihero–a second-class angel named Odd-body, trying to win his wings–Travers’ figure seems a far cry from any stereotype of heavenly help. Even film theorist Siegfried Kracauer would later praise Capri for his concern for physical reality in his portrayal of an otherwise religious and/or fantasy character.
In Capra’s populism, heaven, like Earth, is dominated by American crackerbarrel wisdom. Appropriately, the two angels heard at the beginning of “Life” are Benjamin Franklin–America’s premier real-life crackerbarrel Yankee–and the biblical Joseph. Religion becomes synonymous with common sense and all things practical. This is equally true of the other 1940s favorites. Crosby’s priest in the two McCarey films is merely a young crackerbarrel hero with a collar trying to help first a stubborn older priest (Fitzgerald in “Going My Way” (Going My Way [VHS])), amid then an equally stubborn nun (Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s“). In “Miracle on 34th Street,” (Miracle on 34th Street [Blu-ray]) Gwenn’s crackerbarrel compassion makes the moniker of Saint Nick more fitting than Santa and it is hardly news that Grant’s sexy angel in “The Bishop’s Wife” exudes a charming wisdom more of this world than any other. Fittingly, Dudley’s favorite character, other than Loretta Young’s title figure, is Monty Woolley’s wonderfully realized crackerbarrel academic.
These wise Yankees invariably coin insightful axioms. Even a diminutive cracker-barrel figure, like the Tom Sawyer-reading Clarence, can be quite eloquent in his communication. For instance, at the close of “Life.” Stewart’s character finds Clarence has left his Mark Twain book as a gift, with the written inscription: “Dear George, Remember no man is it failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence.”
In “Life,” the ultimate worldly-wise Yankee (with Christian overtones) is Stewart’s Bailey. For most of the picture, he has taken care of everyone around him. As one character describes his seemingly seasoned wisdom, George “was born old.” It is only on this particular Christmas Eve that he has become a desperate man in need of an angel tutored by Joseph and Benjamin Franklin.
This distillation of religion in an archetype Yankee figure has still another wrinkle for the holiday film. While these figures flirt with the world of a heavenly father, they also represent a real and/or symbolic earthly father to other people in the movie. Again, “Life” sets the standard; Stewart’s George Bailey is everyone’s idealized dad. Thus, the viewer is drawn all the more to “Life” for an assortment of parent-related feelings: Stewart is the type of father you wished was yours; or he actually reminds you of your father; or Stewart reminds you of a childhood time when your father could seemingly do no wrong; or, for men, he is the type of father they wish they could be.
These then, have been four basic “Life” characteristics which drive Capra’s film and many other 1940s Christmas classics: the belief in the inherent goodness of people; a fantasy component to placate the closet cynic; a nostalgia factor for a past most viewers (ironically) never knew, but want to believe in; and a feel-good, homespun religion feeling, a la crackerbarrel wisdom (disseminated by a father figure). Though not meant as an all-inclusive list, it is a definite foundation for the holiday movie. However, one final factor comes to mind–the “ritualistic experience.”
Psychologists maintain that children enjoy seeing the same story over and over again because it is comforting to always know how something turns out in an otherwise chaotic world. People tend to like a particular genre –say, romantic comedy–because it fulfills a basic need in their lives (in this case, a belief in love). Thus, even though the romantic knows the pattern, he or she enjoys embracing this ritualistic experience. It is reminiscent of the opening lines from one of my daughters’ fairy tale collections: “All this has happened before. And it will all happen again.” The same thing could be said of the annual watching of favorite Christmas films. If other explanations seem thin, it is hard to contest an interpretative equation of repetition equals reassurance. Because, while few of us would parrot the comment by George’s daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes), “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings,” with each new “Life” screening, we hope it’s true–at least for Clarence’s sake.
Source: USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education), Nov, 1999 by Wes Gehring – Wes Gehring, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor of film, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.
Gehring wrote the above in 1999 and updated in 2000. Since then, times have become ever so much more precarious and uncertain. Too much TV and electronics are part of the problems with our society today, especially the young. But watching the right movies with family, and sometimes discussing them, dispersed between social and political activities, reading, homework and time spent talking between various generations about family, traditions, country, faith and things that matter can add to your children’s overall education and enrichment.
Some more recently made classics and small screen features worth adding to you list below:
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story aired in 1971 on the small screen. It was the pilot of the Waltons. And there is always the yearly small screen favorite “A Charlie Brown Christmas” The late 60’s and early ‘70’s produced several small screen Christmas cartoon favorites in Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
The early 1990 Comedy “Home Alone” about the 8-year old who accidentally get left at home remains a favorite.
Tim Burton and Disney produced The Nightmare Before Christmas [Blu-ray] + Digital Copy in 1993
“The Star of Christmas” is a bright and shining example of the reality that it is possible to tell and retell the marvelous truth of Christmas in a relevant way for every generation.
Jim Carrey’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas [Blu-ray]) is Fun for all… the tall and the small.
The Christmas Shoes, a touching story
2003 brought another comedy “Elf” with Will Farrel, but ends up being a great story.
Jesus: The Movie (1979) and The Nativity Story (2006) are two of the better religiously based movies of the season about the basis of Christmas, “One Couple. One Journey. One Child… who would change the world… forever”
‘Children of Men’: The Gift of Faith (2006) (Children of Men [Blu-ray])has been called a sci-fi retelling of the Nativity story—the hope of humanity coming to earth in the form of an infant, borne to an impoverished, unwanted mother
In 2008, Thomas Kinkade made Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage during a very pivotal time in his life.
The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Widescreen Edition) is another recent film destined to become a Christmas classic. Part 2 is in the theatres right now. (Chronicles of Narnia: Lion Witch & Wardrobe [Blu-ray])
And then there is Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause: 3 Movie Collection (1994 for the first one)
There are a whole array of Nutcracker Movies (Baryshnikov 2007)… My suggestion is go see it live by a local ballet company!
I apologize if I missed your favorite Christmas movie…
There is nothing like watching a couple great Christmas movies with family or friends munching on goodies (homemade are always the best) with smells of pine and holly in the air and then sharing about old times or traditions or playing an old fashioned board game with a cup of Egg Nog your hand and Christmas music playing in the background. But squeezing in some time for reading a great Christmas book or story or some passages from the Bible (quietly or out loud) is a good balance to the TV.