Dave Kehr, formerly of the The New York Times, hit on something when he questioned why one of our favorite films is pretty much the standard bearer of Christmas movies.
Kehr once wrote: With its bleak, film-noir imagery and barely suppressed undertone of suicidal despair, Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) has somewhat mysteriously assumed an unshakable position as America’s official holiday film.
While we are delighted it has, we concede that there is an element of the downright scary in It’s A Wonderful Life.
It is, after all, the story of a small town savings and loan man (James Stewart) facing financial devastation at the hands of a banking institution run by the viciously unscrupulous Lionel Barrymore. With home foreclosures still cropping up in daily headlines, elements of the movie’s plot resemble today’s unsettling conditions.
Perhaps a modicum of fear is necessary for a good Christmas movie. In 1951’s Scrooge, the fine British actor Alastair Sim etches a hard-to-forget picture of an addled, confused old man terrified by the three ghostly visions presented to him. This Scrooge is metaphorically scared straight.
In 1938’s A Christmas Carol, a similarly addled Scrooge (Reginald Owen) is nicely contrasted by Gene Lockhart’s winning performance as a stalwart yet sunny Bob Cratchit.
Frightening in a wholly different way is 1954’s White Christmas, a saccharine Paramount outing — the first movie filmed in Vistavision, no less — built around Irving Berlin’s seasonal chestnut about the joys of being snowbound during the holidays. It’s a romantic comedy with music costarring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The guys play song-and-dance men who fall for a pair of sisters. The saving grace is that Crosby’s vocal gifts actually make I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas quite listenable.
Crosby introduced the song in 1942 in Holiday Inn, which, as we suggested yesterday is a much better picture.
Kehr has a suggestion about a suitable holiday movie in lieu of It’s A Wonderful Life.
For those in search of a more vibrant, warmhearted and subtly melancholic seasonal celebration there is Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 musical ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’
As costar Judy Garland sings to Margaret O’Brien, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.