Classic Christmas Movies
The signs of the season never change--relentless Christmas carols, drab lights arcing thoroughfares, mind-numbing advertising, and It's a Wonderful Life. Broadcast with propagandistic regularity since Veteran's Day, the film has passed from mere cult status to the dimensions of a religious ritual or a national movement. Frank Capra's fantasy is 46 years old this Yuletide, and though its creator has earned his wings, the film's appeal is greater than ever. After a decade of soulless materialism that made Life's miserly Mr. Potter look like Mother Teresa, the beneficiaries of the Reagan-Bush revolution are learning that greed is not necessarily good. The idealism, self-sacrifice, and social responsibility gently preached in Life look better this Christmas than ever before. Not only does Capra's film seem vindicated, so do the host of lesser classics that spring up perennially around holiday time--films like Christmas in Connecticut, Miracle on 34th Street, and the Bing Crosby vehicles Holiday Inn, Going My Way, and The Bells of Saint Mary's. Especially when compared to such modern seasonal offerings as Home Alone. Not coincidentally, each of these films was made during or just after World War II, a time when the message of "Peace on earth to men of good will'' would seem most needed. But the films did more than reiterate a platitude. Never an easy holiday, Christmas celebrated during a period of national crisis underscores the institution's basic conflict between childhood and maturity, between illusion and idealism, and between freedom and responsibility. At a time when the sanctity of home and family seemed most precious and threatened, these films promoted a paradox, advocating the need to maintain both the faith of children and the responsibility of adults. When we wake up on Christmas morning, these films argued, we should still believe in Santa Claus, but we should also realize that he is ourselves. In Christmas in Connecticut (1945), the illusion of holiday comfort and joy suggested by the title is dispelled with the first scene. A U-Boat sinks a US destroyer in the North Atlantic, and two survivors languish on a lifeboat. One (Dennis Morgan) has hallucinations of being served a hearty dinner, which remains his dream after he is rescued and hospitalized and put on a diet of gruel. He cozies up to a nurse to scrounge up a steak but proves unresponsive to her suggestions about getting married. Noting that the sailor is an "artist'' who "never had a real home,'' she writes to the publisher (Lionel Barrymore) of Smart Housekeeping magazine. Wouldn't it be a wonderful gesture if he invited Morgan to Christmas dinner with the popular writer (Barbara Stanwyck) of their "Diary of a Housewife'' column? Since circulation doubled when Stanwyck merely had a baby, Barrymore readily agrees. The problem, of course, is that the happy Connecticut farmhouse, husband, and baby that Stanwyck has been writing about are complete fictions, and she and her editor must fabricate them in order to deceive Morgan and Barrymore. The illusion survives the assault of wartime reality, aided by contrived screwball plotting, bedroom farce, and romantic sleigh rides. The labored premise and resolution of this film may account for its lack of popularity, and director Peter Godfrey is no Howard Hawks (neither presumably, is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is remaking the film for HBO). But Stanwyck is tough, canny, and good-humored throughout; despite the happy ending, it's clear that the only place she'd be a contented housewife is in print. Independent women fare less well in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Maureen O'Hara plays an ambitious, upwardly mobile executive with Macy's Department Store. A single mother, she's hardhearted and somewhat embittered by her failed marriage, and so is determined that her young daughter (Natalie Wood) will not fall prey to the same fairy tales--Prince Charming, Santa Claus--that she did. Given charge of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, she has to find a last-minute replacement (Edmund Gwynn) for the regular Santa, who's taken in too much Christmas cheer. The replacement is such a hit that Macy's hires him full-time for the holiday sales season. Unfortunately, the new Claus really believes he is Kris Kringle, and he carries out his campaign against the commercialization of Christmas by sending customers to Gimbel's for better buys. This proves a brilliant publicity tactic, sending Macy's sales soaring. More subversively, however, Kringle restores Wood's faith in Santa. She puts him to a test--if he can give her a house for Christmas, she'll believe. The courts test him also--he's taken in for a sanity hearing (where Christmas in Connecticut follows the pattern of Capra's Meet John Doe, Miracle imitates Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). Through the courtly skills of lawyer John Payne, the myths of both Santa and the family endure. Although he won an Oscar, Gwynn makes an unctuous, vaguely creepy Santa--for one thing, he takes a bit too much pleasure demonstrating the proper way to whip a reindeer. Neither can he sing or tell jokes like Bing Crosby. But before Crosby could be beatified as a black-robed Santa in Leo McCarey's Going My Way and The Bells of Saint Mary's, he had to earn his clerical collar in the romantic battles of Holiday Inn (1942). Like the two later movies, this film spans all the holidays, but it focuses on Christmas. Crosby is a crooner disenchanted with the road who wants to settle down in a Connecticut farmhouse. The experience lands him in a sanitarium, where he concocts a scheme to turn his place into an inn that's open only on holidays. Budding star Marjorie Reynolds joins him in a duet of "White Christmas.'' They fall in love, but Bing's ex-partner, Fred Astaire, lures her away from the farm to Hollywood. "White Christmas'' and the illusion of hearth and home win in the end, however, when Bing serenades her in Hollywood on a set that's an exact re-creation of his Holiday Inn. Despite the ingenious reflexivity of the conclusion, Holiday Inn isn't one of director Mark (Top Hat) Sandrich's best musicals--Astaire makes a better lover than a heel, and Crosby makes a better priest than a suitor. As diocesan troubleshooter Father O'Malley, he's the ideal combination of regular guy and saint--in other words, he's the miracle-working Santa whom we wait for, and whom we can aspire to be. In Going My Way (1945), he genially takes on the issue of senescence and mortality, guiding crapulous old prelate Barry Fitzgerald and his fading St. Dominic's Church; show business and Bing save the day when he sells his tune "Would You Like To Wish on a Star.'' More than failing real estate is at stake in The Bells of Saint Mary's (1947)--with Ingrid Bergman as mother superior (no one has looked better in a wimple), the conflict between desire and duty is an urgent, if unstated issue. Bing and Bergman pressure a local real-estate mogul (Henry Travers, playing a variation on his flawed angel in It's a Wonderful Life) into donating a building to the school. As in Going My Way, the spirit of Christmas--wishes fulfilled through duty, charity, and self-sacrifice--triumphs. Crosby makes a breezy, believable do-gooder; saying goodbye to Bergman at the end of Bells comes a lot easier to him than it would to, say, the Jimmy Stewart of It's a Wonderful Life (1946). As George Bailey, Stewart is Santa by default, and it's a role he resists. But George is not only the brightest and most ambitious man in town, he's also the most generous and most put-upon. Although his Building and Loan company frees many of his fellow citizens from their poverty, it imprisons him. Like many people who feel defrauded of their dreams by obligations, George is angry and despondent. The man who promised his wife the moon has to be content with giving her the drab comfort of social conformity and small-town success. Fittingly, George confronts this malaise on Christmas Day. Capra, however, shifts the issue through the deus ex machina of catastrophe. Because of another man's incompetence, George's firm loses $8,000, and he flees to a bridge to end it all. He's stopped by the celestial intervention of angel second-class Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), who presents him with a vision of what life would have been like if he never lived. George is faced with a choice between his present life and no life at all. But that had never been his problem. If Clarence and Capra were playing fair, they'd have shown George the life he could have lived had he chosen to follow his own desires and visions. He'd have seen the bridges and skyscrapers he might have built had he in fact "shaken the dust of this crummy small town'' off his feet and set off on his own road. Such a revelation is not comforting; neither is it fashionable now, when such independence looks suspiciously like the rapacious selfishness that did the '80s in. Like George, we want to be reassured that our lot, however disappointing, is the right one, that our dreams endure even though they have long since metamorphosed into compromises. Like all Christmas movies, like a certain version of Christmas itself, the message of It's a Wonderful Life is ultimately one of complacency: it's the life we've settled for, so we might as well pretend it's wonderful.