"You'll shoot your eye out, kid"

Everything you need to know about the great yuletide standards, from "It's a Wonderful Life" to "A Christmas Story."

By Michael Sragow

Published December 14, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Last weekend, the high point of Val Kilmer's first guest-host appearance on "Saturday Night Live" came right at the beginning, when his intro turned into a parody of "It's a Wonderful Life." No film has led a more charmed afterlife than Frank Capra's holiday perennial. Over the past 55 years it has become America's celluloid yule log. A critical and box-office disappointment in 1946, it was treated as Capra's masterpiece when he died in 1991, overshadowing his true masterpiece, the miraculously airy "It Happened One Night," as well as his official classics, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and his daring early works, including "Miracle Woman" and "The Bitter Tea of General Yen."

Although for decades "It's a Wonderful Life" popped up promiscuously on local stations across the country, the NBC network now owns broadcast rights and presents it annually during prime time -- this year, from 8 to 11 p.m. EST on Saturday. Of course, carping at a film that compels this much allegiance is tantamount to burning the flag. "It's a Wonderful Life" probably is the most affecting Christmas movie ever made. But the Christmas movie genre comprises some tricky, drippy pictures -- and the influence of "It's a Wonderful Life" has helped keep it that way. Since nostalgia and renewal are keynotes of the season, here's a reevaluation of yuletide's movie mainstays -- the "Wonderful," the "Miracles," the "Carols" and the "Story" -- all presented with faith, hope and even a dab of charity.

For a Christmas film, the plot of "It's a Wonderful Life" -- a guardian angel named Clarence saves a bankrupt building-and-loan company president from suicide -- is de rigueur. After all, Christmas is the movie season when three spirits and a ghost transform a skinflint businessman into the best Christian in London ("A Christmas Carol"), or Santa Claus teaches a rationalistic New York mother and daughter the importance of faith and imagination ("Miracle on 34th Street"), or two hot young entertainers, motivated by residual World War II patriotism, stage a show at their retired general's Vermont inn to put him back on his financial feet ("White Christmas").

James Agee, as usual, got "It's a Wonderful Life" down right when he wrote, "Often, in its pile-driving emotional exuberance, it outrages, insults, or at least accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind; it is nevertheless recommended."

How you react may depend on how you approach seeing it. I first watched it 35 years ago on late-night TV -- during the summer, not the Christmas season. I felt appreciative of its virtues, generous toward its faults and protective of the film as a whole. But soon after, the reputation of Capra's lovable little movie began to snowball, thanks to the devotion of Steven Spielberg and his fellow movie brats. As an American institution, it became tiresome. Back in the mid-'60s, when Pauline Kael put together a nifty list of films for children, "It's a Wonderful Life" held the spot between "Ivanhoe" and "The Incredible Shrinking Man." But when Kael compiled "5001 Nights at the Movies" two decades later, the best she had to say was that "in its own slurpy, bittersweet way, the picture is well done."

For me, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a wholesome analogue to those tacky exploitation comedies that make me feel guilty in the morning -- though in this case, I don't feel guilty until after New Year's. The film is Capra's attempt to do a Dickensian fable in mid-20th century America, and his theme is the same one George Orwell found in Charles Dickens: "If men would behave decently, the world would be decent." James Stewart gives a signature performance as George Bailey, the small-town good guy who can't rise in the world because he's too busy giving a shoulder up to everyone else. This lenient, generous home financier galls the town Scrooge, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who hates Bailey not only because Bailey's low-cost suburban developments threaten the value of his own tenement holdings but also because the Bailey family has the two things Potter lacks: humanity and friends.

When Bailey's drunken uncle inadvertently drops a crucial sum of money into Potter's lap, the villain immediately moves to destroy the Bailey Building and Loan Association. Arriving on Christmas Eve and right before the homecoming of Bailey's war-hero brother, the crisis precipitates Bailey's attempt at suicide -- which Clarence, his guardian angel, halts.

The angel's entrance would come as a shock if the film weren't framed with a discussion -- among God, St. Joseph and the seraph -- of Bailey's earthly life. Capra etches Bailey's frustrations in a hepped-up, occasionally cute, but realistic style; when Clarence appears, it's as if Mother Goose had come to finish a novel started by Midwestern bard Booth Tarkington. In an influential 1962 essay, the movie's brilliant champion, critic William Pechter, suggested that this angel ex machina and the incessant spunk and thump of the moviemaking reveal the despair beneath Capra's belief in goodwill.

But I think Capra the showman simply wanted to push his story's conflicts to their most dramatic extremes. Bedford Falls, at the start of the film, is an ode to a small-town America that no longer is and possibly never was. When Clarence shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would be like if he'd never been born (for starters, it would be renamed Pottersville), it's a nightmare of crassness and cynicism. Bailey learns that his continued existence will preserve the virtue of an entire town.

Bailey begins as a victim and ends up a hero; he attracts sympathy the way golf courses do lightning. Without the energy and veracity of the film's first third, "It's a Wonderful Life" would drown in mawkishness and preaching. But there's extraordinary stuff in that first 45 minutes. Bailey's boyhood scenes are the best in the movie -- they arouse the empathy of even the most hard-boiled viewer. He loses the use of an ear because he dives into an icy pond to save his kid brother's life. Later, a drunken employer slaps him hard on his bad ear. All of us probably remember our first encounters with misfortune and injustice. Capra captures the agony of those incidents with honesty and acuteness.

Luckily, thanks to Stewart, the adult Bailey is richly, unassertively humane, and less of a drag than he is as written. The star streaks his warmth and enthusiasm with anger, ambition and temperament. What Stewart projects from his core is that Bailey is a reluctant rube; his fury at being provincial puts an unexpected edge on Capra's corniness. There's genuine emotion in the coyly avid courtship between Bailey and the girl who idolizes him (played with sexiness and strength by Donna Reed).

For a film that places a premium on simplicity, the technique is exceedingly busy. When Capra stages a prom, there isn't a slow moment on the high school dance floor. Though the director always wanted to celebrate down-home virtues, he couldn't have felt them in his bones. If you slog through his celebratory autobiography, "The Name Above the Title," what sticks in your mind is not any particular code of behavior but Capra's mechanical curiosity and drive. The suggestions of depth in "It's a Wonderful Life" remain suggestions; Capra's cleverness lubricates a conventional morality play, balancing the sentiment with fun. The simpler style of a John Ford might have allowed more stubborn arbitrariness to seep into the characters, more accidents into the incidents.

Ultimately, Capra's moralism beats you down. His Scrooge -- Potter -- doesn't have a change of heart. And that shift in perspective doesn't just signal a variation on Dickens' theme, but alters its comic-dramatic scope and moral dimension. Dickens' stroke of genius was to dramatize the resurrection possible in the least wonderful life.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that "A Christmas Carol" "owes much of its hilarity to the fact of it being a tale of winter, and a very wintry winter." Dickens puts dead center the barren December landscape of Scrooge's soul -- which paradoxically makes his story more exciting, more humorous and even more comforting than Capra's.

The contrast of Scrooge's gruel causes Dickens' Christmastide pleasures to seem infinitely inviting: lavish food and drink, toasty family reunions, even genteel flirtations amid games of blindman's buff. The spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come stress the importance of generosity and kindness year-round. No organized religion can be found to turn off nonbelievers in this story. What Dickens calls for is fellow feeling, right on earth. His combination of high-mindedness and heartiness, of social realism and aesthetic gaiety, suffuses the fabric and texture of the story. Gusto clings to every detail, like the boy-size turkey that Scrooge buys for the Cratchits' Christmas dinner.

In his entry in "You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe," John Irving, an inspired follower of Dickens, notes, "Each Christmas, we are assaulted with a new carol; indeed, we're fortunate if all we see is the delightful Alastair Sim."

Irving is right: The best big-screen "Christmas Carol" is the 1951 British production starring Sim as Scrooge, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and written by Noel Langley (who co-wrote "The Wizard of Oz"). It's true to Dickens' brusque theatricality. For all the joyousness and pathos of the sights the ghosts show Scrooge, he's never allowed to linger over them. The spirits force him onto an emotional whirligig that doesn't stop until Christmas Eve is over. His giddy recognition of his change rings in delightful concert with the chimes that sound on Christmas morning.

The actor playing Scrooge sets the pitch of every "Christmas Carol," and Sim in this version is tiptop and irrepressible. Comically grotesque at the beginning and infectiously silly at the end, his performance is a stylish caricature of a man who exacts passionate satisfaction from tightness and meanness. When he sees his ex-partner Marley's ghost, he looks more afraid of having his evening ruined and his smallness revealed than of the specter. Though kids laugh at Sim's vicious glee and the way he masticates his lines, they hate his Scrooge until he is transformed. Sim's cleverness and panache amuse adults throughout.

The film contains one soaring, lyrical moment reminiscent of John Huston's great "The Dead." In Dickens, when Scrooge attends his neglected nephew's Christmas party, the man's wife, whom Scrooge has shunned, sings a "simple air" that melts his heart. In this movie, the simple air is "Barbara Allen" -- a song that the movie's composer, Richard Addinsell, has already linked with Scrooge's frail, beloved sister. The shifts of expression in Sim's face and the melancholy pull of the ballad turn the scene into a tour de force of plaintiveness.

While the British movie chronicles Scrooge's gradual hardening and gold lust and consequent loss of sentiment and romance, the 1938 MGM production gives its fullest attention to such frivolities as street sliding. The studio's smooth, plush blandness muffles the story's vitality. This version takes a giant leap from Scrooge's youth to his miserhood: Producer Joseph Mankiewicz must have calculated that American audiences wouldn't accept Scrooge as an eligible young man. Hugo Butler's script (directed by Edwin Marin) leaves out many of Dickens' stirring sermons, such as the Spirit of Christmas Present's description of the two emaciated children hiding under his robes: "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy." Maybe MGM thought Depression audiences would reverse the Spirit's priorities.

The people who come through here for Dickens are the costume designers. Reginald Owen is an uninspired Scrooge, but his pinched pants and tight waistcoat force him into a hunchbacked, bowlegged crouch; he has an amusing profile, like a grasshopper in fancy dress. But you'll find more fervent expressions of Christmas spirit not just in the Sim "Christmas Carol" but in movies derived from Dickens' masterworks that aren't Christmas specific: David Lean's "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist," Carol Reed's "Oliver!" Alberto Cavalcanti's "Nicholas Nickleby," Noel Langley's "The Pickwick Papers" (yes, the same Noel Langley who adapted Sim's Scrooge) and the David Selznick-Jack Conway production of "A Tale of Two Cities." Each draws on Dickens' comedic or melodramatic zing and satiric inventiveness -- and, often, his blend of moral uplift and social outrage.

With "Miracle on 34th Street," we're back in Capra territory. The original is another piece of late-'40s Hollywood whimsy, written and directed by Capra's friend George Seaton. The miracle is that the real Kris Kringle has taken a job at Macy's as Santa Claus. Seaton uses this premise to establish a toddler-level debate between imagination, in the form of Santa (Edmund Gwenn), and stern reason, represented mostly by Macy's promotion director (Maureen O'Hara). When imagination wins, you wonder why it never took root in any of the moviemakers.

The film criticizes department store materialism while praising Santa for delighting hordes of kids with gifts. It holds Christian faith above pragmatism, but confirms Santa's identity in a court of law. And though O'Hara's daughter (8-year-old Natalie Wood) learns that faith is its own reward, she achieves certain belief only when Santa gives her what she wants for Christmas -- a house on Long Island. (In the flop 1994 remake, Richard Attenborough is Santa while Mara Wilson assumes Wood's part and Elizabeth Perkins takes O'Hara's; the biggest difference between the two is that Macy's is now the fictional Cole's.)

Then there's "White Christmas," a flagon of flat eggnog served up by old Hollywood hands, including director Michael Curtiz at his least adept. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are Army buddies who use their postwar nightclub act to bail their general, now retired, out of debt. They even ship their entire old regiment to his Vermont inn. Apparently, in 1954, audiences were already nostalgic for the purposefulness and unity of the Second World War. In the course of rehearsals, Crosby and Kaye fall in love with a sister act -- Crosby with singer Rosemary Clooney, Kaye with dancer Vera-Ellen. Kaye is wasted, but Clooney's slightly husky voice blends well with Crosby's husked one.

"White Christmas" was the first film to use the big-screen process called VistaVision -- which must have given theater audiences enormous views of Vera-Ellen's legs. The movie has the overstuffed ambience of hard-sell '50s productions; even the lighting is too rich, with reds and greens that would look better on upscale Tannenbaum ornaments.

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Perhaps in reaction to such plush ostentation, video renters and TV audiences have catapulted the cheerfully ragged "A Christmas Story" (1983) into the holiday-film stratosphere of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." Indeed, if you're at home Friday at 11 a.m. PST or 2 p.m. EST, you can see it once again on TBS. This adaptation of Jean Shepherd's memoirlike novel "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" was the first movie that director (and co-producer and co-writer) Bob Clark made after "Porky's" and "Porky's II: The Next Day." It's not as big a leap as you might expect. When I interviewed him in 1982, Clark told me he thought the key to "Porky's" was that "the whole movie springs from the notion that if 17-year-old boys have their sexuality repressed, outlandish behavior results." Just substitute "if 9-year-old boys have their natural aggressiveness repressed" in the previous sentence and you have "A Christmas Story."

Round-faced, bespectacled Ralphie sets his Christmas gift hopes on a 200-shot carbine action Red Ryder air rifle -- a BB gun. Much of the action revolves around the obstacles to his getting his wish, from the wisdom held by mother and schoolmarm alike that he'll take his eye out with it to his near paralysis in the lap of a gruff department store Santa. Peter Billingsley was born to play Ralphie: Even at his most relaxed, his expression is wide-eyed. He's the ideal camera subject for a director like Clark, who aims to bring exuberance to the obvious.

Our hero's home in frigid Hohman, Ind., circa 1940 (duplicated in Cleveland, circa '83), afflicted with a sputtering furnace and rampaging hounds from the hill folk next door, supplies Clark with a setting that suits his penchant for hyperbole. Shepherd provides archetypal incidents, from a tongue frozen on a flagpole to Ralphie's first walloping of a bully (a creep named Scott -- pronounced Scut -- Farcus, who has yellow eyes), that fulfill Clark's desire to tap folkloric roots.

Clark admitted to me in our interview that he knew "the ratio of broadly farcical elements to reality will vary" from filmmaker to filmmaker. "Mel Brooks might be 6-to-1," he said, "'Animal House' 4-to-1, Woody Allen 2-to-1. 'Porky's' is probably only one-and-a-half-to-1." He applies the same ratio to "A Christmas Story." But here he has actors like Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin, as Ralphie's mom and dad, who enter right into Clark's preferred mode of gritty slapstick, especially when McGavin wins "electric sex" in a contest: a lamp in the shape of a female leg.

"A Christmas Story" is so full of high jinks that I often wondered what it had to do with Christmas at all. Then I remembered a line from Irving's essay on "A Christmas Carol": "Dickens' celebration of ghosts, and of Christmas, is but a small part of the author's abiding faith in the innocence and magic of children; Dickens believed that his own imagination -- in fact, his overall well-being -- depended on the contact he kept with his childhood." What links "A Christmas Story" and "A Christmas Carol" is Shepherd's remark in his narration that "the entire kid year" revolves around Christmas. By the end, you can imagine Ralphie proclaiming, a bit like Tiny Tim, "God bless us every one -- except for yellow-eyed Scut Farcus!"

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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