It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Here it is, the Ultimate Christmas Film, the one that gets trotted out every December on basic cable and in cinematic revivals–even in France–to lift the maudlin spirits of those who need a refresher course on how angels achieve winghood. Need your faith in humanity restored? The first step, so says conventional wisdom, is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.
I must admit, when I first started on this journey a year ago, I wasn’t looking forward to this one. I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life some time ago, and it soured me to Capra for years afterward. I was annoyed by the pomposity, the triteness, the lack of believable performances, and the naïveté of its message. But then I embarked on this little project and I saw It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take it With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I realized…goddamn, can Frank Capra direct a motion picture. So I approached this film with at least a little bit of optimism, imagining (in the spirit of the season) that within the context of the rest of his catalogue, perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life is not so sickeningly saccharine as it at first appears.
And lo and behold, I discovered that within the context provided by Capra’s previous efforts, it is even worse than I’d remembered.
All the subtlety, the subtext, and the restraint of those films I mentioned above are gone, and the clear technical and artistic progression I observed between 1934 and 1939 just disappeared entirely. I understand that World War II had just ended and people needed a bit of moral boosting in its wake, and not every film can be The Best Years of Our Lives…but come on. I’m pretty sure Disney showed this film to the lemmings in White Wilderness to make them throw themselves off that cliff.
Look, I’m all about optimism in motion pictures, and I’d come to expect it from Capra, but he’d grown so much as a storyteller in the 1930s, able to weave it in to plots and characters that don’t gloss over the dark path that lies ahead after the credits roll. For example, Mr. Smith took on Washington and Capra had the cajones to end it on a deeply troubling note, implying that American politics was irreparably damaged and that the effort of one righteous person ultimately doesn’t change much. Here, he actually seems to believe that to be true, and that he’d filmed a happy, uplifting ending…and so do most people who watch it, it seems.
The story, for those lucky few out there who have avoided the film until now, is about a man named George Bailey who wants nothing more than to get out of the one-horse town in which he finds himself, only to be stymied at every turn by accidents and his indefatigable sense of right. So he watches as everyone close to him goes off to lead the lives he dreams of for himself, while he never leaves Bedford Falls. Things just go from bad to worse as he marries the love of his life, successfully stands up to the machinations of the materialistic Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, playing pretty much the exact opposite of his character in YCTIWY), and enjoys the love and respect of literally everyone in the town and beyond.
The fuck are you complaining about, again?
Nothing about George Bailey suggests he would do anything with his “freedom” besides travel around the world for a while as a tourist and then settle right back into Bedford Falls where he clearly belongs. Still, he’s so obtuse–and, one could argue, just as materialistic as Potter…he just buries it to feel superior–that he’s driven to the brink of suicide, only to be saved by the intervention of a slightly senile angel named Clarence (who only steps in because he wants to earn his wings…if he’d already had them, the film ends with Bailey drowning while Clarence watches and then flies away).
So he sees all the harm that befalls Bedford Falls when he’s not around, thanks to the contrivance of growing up in a town dominated by a One-Dimensional Antagonist up to whom no one will stand but him. He’s finally convinced of his worth when he is told that his wife remained single, and thus was never fulfilled by the bearing of his children. The camel’s back breaks when he sees her and discovers that, in this horrifying alternate timeline, she is a librarian who wears glasses.
“My god…no one should have to live through progressive myopia!”
(I’d argue that she’s doing more with her life in this reality, keeping a library operating and, it seems, relatively unscathed in a town as hedonistic and slummy as Pottersville. She’s needed here far more than in Bedford Falls, but since her role is to serve the protagonist, the film just glosses over that. Where’s her angel?)
And so George prays to get his old life back, Clarence gives it to him, and he returns to his family and friends, ostensibly a better man for his ordeal. Clarence gets his wings, George learns he’s not a complete failure, and everybody sings and laughs and cries. In the end, of course, everything is exactly the same as it was when George was standing on the bridge…actually, it’s worse. Much worse.
I mean, sure, the town and its inhabitants are better off than if he hadn’t been born, but nothing’s changed about the real world, the one in which he exists. He’s still deep in debt, managing a business with a patently unsustainable business model, and his rich friend is just advancing him $25,000, so that’s just more debt. Being in debt to friends is far worse than being in debt to enemies. Also, Potter’s still out there, and he’s not going to stop…Capra forgot the most important part of this story, the moral change that Potter must go through if anything is to get better. But his epiphany never comes, and indeed nothing implies that it will…he’s happy with who and what he is, and if he doesn’t consider himself a failure, what does it matter if Bailey and the rest of them–or we the audience, for that matter–do? What’s standing in his way besides a suicidal nudnik and a gaggle of indifferent townies?
In fact, Potter’s in a more powerful position than he’s ever been, because all the struggling townsfolk just gave their pocket money to George Bailey to save his business/etc. So now the next time Potter decides to make a move, no one will be able to stop him. The town is fucked.
In a month’s time, when the feelings have worn off, the business collapses, and George is driven to suicide again, the only thing different will be that he now knows he’s better off dead. His existence has merely delayed the inevitable. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville all the same, only Mary can’t run the library because she’s a widow with four children to support, so all intellectual pursuits dry up and the town ends up worse than Bailey’s nightmare.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
The Bishop’s Wife is a charming comedy about how angels gotta have it, and the trouble they can cause to marriages when they look like Cary Grant.
Send this guy, and the movie’s over in five minutes.
The film tells the story of an angel (Grant) who magics his way into the lives of stodgy married couple David Niven and Loretta Young and immediately starts causing discord–or, to be fair, bringing to light the discord already bubbling under the surface–in order to “help” them or something. This help consists mostly of ruining Niven’s life while showing everyone else the time of theirs, and convincing Loretta Young that her husband is and always will be dull as dishwater.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie is hilarious and charming, and all the actors play their roles perfectly, but man does David Niven’s character get a beating, all for the crime of having a beautiful wife with whom an impish angel wants some alone time. Even a random cab driver comes out of the whole thing with an epiphany, doing triple axels with Young and Grant on a Central Park skating rink, while Niven is literally stuck to a chair in the company of the film’s main antagonist. Keep in mind, Grant didn’t glue him there so that the two could come to an understanding that advances the plot…he just wanted to skate without Niven ruining his idyllic park date with Niven’s wife.
Fortunately, though, just when he’s at the brink of despair, Niven is offered words of wisdom by 1940s Hollywood’s resident Old British Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold, Monty Woolley. Woolley is a Egyptologist who, thanks to Grant, is now well on the way to completing his history book (again, everybody wins here but the one Grant is ostensibly there to help), and tells the forlorn Niven that he can save his marriage because he has something very important that the angel lacks.
“Seriously, he’s like a Ken doll down there.”
Okay, that’s not it…it’s uxorial love, or something. In the end, the situation is resolved when the angel just leaves and gives them all a healthy dose of Hollywood amnesia, by which they forget he ever existed but retain all the lessons he taught them. Everyone’s happy, and no one makes mention the fact that they just blacked out for two weeks and came to with entirely different weltanshauungs (and, in Woolley’s case, a first draft of a Cleopatra biography).
As far as the “angel enters someone’s life at Christmastime and helps them realize it’s a wonderful life” genre goes, it’s better than It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s still a damned odd and incoherent excuse for the cast to play their respective typecasts: Cary Grant, the charming rogue; Loretta Young, the naive romantic; David Niven, the stiff-upper-lip bloke who just needs to lighten up; and Monty Woolley, the aforementioned O.B.C. with an H.O.G. And even if the moral isn’t really supported by the narrative, at least it’s a better message than the other Christmas film this year…
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The first of approximately four hundred adaptations of this story, Miracle on 34th Street finds Santa Claus (or maybe just a senile old man who speaks Dutch) in Manhattan for the holidays. Exactly who’s running the shop while he’s living it up in Gotham is never addressed, and if his actions in the film are any indication it would have been better for all involved if he’d just stayed home. In any event, he’s there, eager to impart on anyone who has the misfortune of meeting him the true meaning of Christmas: that children deserve all the toys and possessions they want and only bad parents don’t provide them.
This is a movie that relies entirely on schmaltz and corniness at the total expense of character development, attention to narrative detail, and even a passing resemblance to the morality it claims to espouse. Throughout the film, most changes happen off-screen and for no discernible reason, leaving the majority of characters’ motivations constantly shifting and inexplicable. It also commits the It’s a Wonderful Life sin of not giving a toss about the moral arc of the antagonist…instead, everyone just forgets he exists as soon as his function (providing an opportunity for the brilliant-because-reasons lawyer to prove Santa is real in a goddamn court of law) is complete.
“And remember, Santa only cares about A-listers.”
The only people Santa helps in the film are people who are already moral, relatively stable, and sure of who they are–he has no time for anyone else who might actually benefit from someone caring about them. This is established in his first scene, when he gets Macy’s current Santa Claus fired just before the parade because the man has been drinking…not even drunk, just a little tipsy. And he drinks, one imagines, because he is a lonely man without a home who only works for a few weeks out of the year by virtue of not having enough money to buy a razor. He may have died frozen in Central Park on Christmas Eve, for all the real Santa cares, so long as he gets to give a spoiled child a goddamn house.
Oh yes, that’s the other lesson of the film: if you wish hard enough, you get everything you want. The little girl wants a house in the suburbs (which her mother, being an executive at Macy’s, should be able to afford anyway), and asks Santa for it. He demures, and later it seems like she doesn’t get this completely irrational and ridiculous gift…until, in the end, of course she does, because it’s more important to keep a child naive than to teach them that sometimes, they don’t get handed everything they want immediately and tax-free. And they should expect nothing less than that.
“I asked for a white grand piano in the conservatory, asshole.”
Amoral Santas and home wrecking angels…the year’s off to a weird start.