It’s a Wonderful Life


It's a Wonderful Life
George Bailey once caught a fish that was THISSSS big!!

(1946) Holiday Fantasy (RKO Radio) Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Tom Karns. Directed by Frank Capra

There are a lot of movies that are designated as classics, and they get that kind of acclaim for a variety of reasons. Some transcend time and place, bring into focus our basic humanity and reaffirm the basic goodness that is inside all of us, even though we sometimes seem more like the greedy banker than the noble George Bailey.

The aforementioned George Bailey (Stewart) wants nothing more than to see the world, but events conspire against him. His father’s building and loan in the picturesque town of Bedford Falls is the only alternative for people to build homes as opposed to live in the squalid shacks built by the town’s greedy, grasping Mr. Potter (Barrymore), one of  filmdom’s all time nastiest villains. Time after time, just when it seems that George is going to get his dream, something happens to frustrate him.

Most of us know the basics of the story. When George hits rock bottom, his business short by several thousand dollars on Christmas Eve just when the auditor arrives and it seems as if he is going to go to jail and his family rocked by scandal, he wishes he had never been born. His somewhat bedraggled guardian angel Clarence (Travers) grants him his wish and he gets to see what the world would be like without him.

The message is that a single person can make a huge difference on the lives of those around them is perhaps not an unusual one but few films have ever delivered it as effectively as this one. A perennial Christmas favorite, the redemption of George Bailey is recognized as the redemption of us all. Like George Bailey, we often don’t recognize what we have right in front of us.

This may very well be Jimmy Stewart’s most defining role. He made a career of playing an unassuming everyman, none more basically good than George Bailey. He’s a good man doing the best he can in trying circumstances; we can all see a little bit of ourselves in George, and in his devoted wife Mary (Reed). The love between them is genuine and uplifting, and much more passionate than movies of the time were generally.

Barrymore, one of the great actors of his generation, plays mean Mr. Potter note-perfectly as a man obsessed with power and possession and in doing so creates one of the most memorable movie villains ever. George Bailey compares him to a spider and so he is, sitting in his web, spinning his plans with a worldview that is cynical, believing the people are basically corrupt and unworthy. It is the difference between Bailey and Potter that represents the two opposing views of the nature of man. We like to believe that we are more like George Bailey, even though oftentimes we act more like Mr. Potter – in our own self-interest with little regard for the world behind us. I do believe he would have found our world very much to his liking.

And yet we still believe in George Bailey. Seeing this movie always brings to mind that we are, at heart, yearning to be George Bailey, wishing that the world worked the way it does here where the good are surrounded by friends who rush to the rescue in our darkest hour. It’s a world where angels get wings whenever a bell rings, where decrepit houses can become homes and where daddies can fix broken flowers with a little bit of glue and a lot of love. It’s a world where prayers are answered and guardian angels walk among us. It is a better world. It is our world, or at least it could be.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a heartwarming classic that uplifts the spirit no matter how depressed you may be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You have the soul of Mr. Potter.

FAMILY VALUES: This is a family classic that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The American Film Institute has named this movie the #1 most inspirational film of all time, the #1 most powerful film of all time, the #3 Fantasy film of all time and the #20 film overall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions include a making of documentary hosted by the late Tom Bosley and Frank Capra Jr. hosts a featurette entitled “A Personal Remembrance.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Formosa Betrayed

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A Christmas Carol (1938)


A Christmas Carol (1938)

Reginald Owen as the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge.

(MGM) Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Kilburn, Barry Mackay, Lynne Carver, Leo G. Carroll, Lionel Braham, Ann Rutherford, D’Arcy Corrigan, Ronald Sinclair. Directed by Edwin L. Marin

“God bless us, every one.” It’s a line that has become part of popular culture and has been that way for nearly two centuries now. It was common enough when Charles Dickens wrote it back in 1843 but these days it refers to the classic tale.

You know the details. Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen) is a penurious money-lender whose grasping, greedy ways and hateful, aggressive attitude have made him the terror of London. He is visited on Christmas Eve by his jovial nephew Fred (Mackay) who invites him to dinner, which he does every year. As he does every year, Scrooge declines, expressing his disapproval to Fred’s betrothal to Bess (Carver), a poor woman who Fred nonetheless loves with all his heart.

Receiving his message better is Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), his long-suffering clerk who suffers Scrooge’s rages stoically and tolerates his insults meekly. When he asks for Christmas Day off, Scrooge begrudgingly gives it, lambasting his employee to be at work all the earlier the next day. He reluctantly pays Cratchit his pitiful wages and the two depart. The fun-loving Cratchit has his top hat knocked off by a snowball thrown by some young boys which prompts an impromptu snowball fight. Eager to join in the fun, Cratchit lofts a snowball and knocks the hat off of…his boss. The hat unfortunately is crushed under the wheel of a coach. Scrooge sacks him on the spot and to add insult to injury, demands a shilling to compensate for the hat.

Cratchit walks away morosely but the sight of a swinging goose neck on the back of a shopper soon restores his good humor. He bustles from shop to shop, ordering the best meal he can afford. When he gets home, his good-hearted wife (Kathleen Lockhart, Gene’s real-life wife – and for those who love trivia, they were the parents of actress June Lockhart who appears in an uncredited role as Belinda Cratchit, one of their young children) and his beloved children are waiting. He loves them all – but perhaps the crippled Tiny Tim (Kilburn) the most.

The miserly Scrooge in the meantime arrives at his home, empty and silent as the grave. He goes inside to light a candle and is startled to see a face appear on his door knocker. It is the face of Marley (Carroll), his partner who passed away seven years previously that very night. He slams the door and heads up to his bedsit to warm himself by a meager fire. He hears a loud booming noise like a great door had been opened, then the unmistakable sound of chains being dragged across the floor and in walks Marley, bound and fettered.

At first Scrooge doesn’t believe in Marley and dismisses him as the results of indigestion. He summons the local bobbies to remove the intruder but they arrive to find the room empty. Angrily, Scrooge sends them on their way but is startled to see Marley still there. Now convinced of Marley’s validity, he listens to his message. Marley warns Scrooge that he will suffer a fate as sad as his own unless he changes and there was only one chance of that – but he would need to be visited by three spirits in order to do that – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Rutherford), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Braham) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Corrigan). We all know what happens after that.

This version has been shown on television many, many times over the years and is something of a Christmas tradition for many. Despite the technical limitations of the era (the special effects are primitive by our standards and some of the sequences of the spirits flying over London look a bit silly today) the acting is as good as you’ll find in any of the many filmed versions of the story. Particularly good is Gene Lockhart as Cratchit and even if he looked a bit well-fed to be impoverished (although in truth most onscreen Cratchits have been on the chubby side) he manages to capture the unshakable faith and unstoppable cheerfulness that make up the core of the character. Mackay does Fred very well indeed, and is a bit less callow than most of the other actors who have played the role; in my book it’s a little bit closer to the way Dickens wrote him.

Kilburn in my estimation set the standard for all those who tackled the role of Tiny Tim thereafter. His look, his gentleness and his ability to project cheer and joy has essentially become the way we mostly characterize the role. In fact, his recitation of the line I quoted at the beginning of the review is most often seen when the line is needed in advertising or in features.

The drawback here is that the studio wanted this to be an uplifting family film, so nearly every unpleasant element has been eliminated, including the character of Scrooge’s fiancée and the death in childbirth of Fan, his sister. If it wasn’t for that, the movie would have gotten a higher rating as so many familiar elements are missing that it feels like the movie is truncated.

This is one of the most classic of Christmas stories and many of our current holiday traditions can trace its roots to the original Dickens novel. It has been made and remade literally dozens of times on television, in animated form and as live action movies for television and the movies including the latest version starring Jim Carey that was previously reviewed here. While the 1951 version is probably the best known – and the best – of all of the many versions, this one set the standard that almost all of them have derived from at least partially and it is certainly worth seeing for that reason alone. Turner Classic Movies shows it regularly here in the States, but it is easily available everywhere. Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one.

WHY RENT THIS: Gene Lockhart and Barry Mackay are memorable in supporting roles, and Terry Kilburn was one of the best Tiny Tims ever. Veteran character actor Reginald Owen delivers his most memorable performance as Scrooge.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The filmmakers speed through the material, skipping over entire sections of the story to finish at an astonishing 69 minutes. Some of the material is sorely missed. The special effects are primitive and at times painful to watch by modern standards.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most movies from the era, it is no problem for modern family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first version of the classic Dickens tale to be made as a talkie and was meant to star Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge, but Barrymore was badly injured in a fall on another movie set and was unable to perform. He personally recommended Owen to replace him in the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several short features, Judy Garland singing “Silent Night” in a film that was reportedly only played at an MGM Christmas party and an animated short called “Peace on Earth” that, ironically, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the only filmed entertainment to be honored thus.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

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