It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), with special Xmas treats The Little Soldier (Paul Grimault, 1948) & The Great Toy Robbery (1963, Jeff Hale)

by Douglas Buck January 5, 2021 8 minutes (1774 words) 16mm

Small-town businessman George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), having long ago abandoned his childhood dreams of travelling the world, having been stuck spending his entire life in the small town he grew up in, reluctantly taking over his father’s Building and Loan Company, now wishing he’d never been born, is about to commit suicide, when warm-hearted, slightly doddering guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) steps in. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, the angel in search of earning his wings, shows George what life in the town of Bedford Falls would have been like without him…

And here I found myself yet again — another Christmas, another dark room with the flickering images (as far as I remember, I don’t believe I’ve seen it in any other format than projected celluloid) of It’s a Wonderful Life unspooling before me. Not to say this is an annual tradition, but a frequent one, whenever the opportunity presents itself. The last time was 2018, off this very same print, from the vast deep dark vaults of Montreal’s own Le Cinéclub/The Film Society… only for this latest screening, head honcho Phil Spurrell was kind enough to brave the virus apocalypse and lug the print and equipment over to my place for a little private screening, with my ex- and daughter joining for the festivities, all of us hunkered down in secret, grabbing indulgently (at least I was, cuz ‘indulgently’ is just how I roll) at the various culinary delicacies on offer as part of the holiday smorgasbord as we took in the film together. And true to form, even under these latest seemingly endless quasi-house arrest circumstances, Capra’s Christmas-time classic proved again to grow even more resonant.

It’s not just the uber-sentimental ending that stands out, but the genuinely astounding emotional depths with which Capra delves to get us there (I mean, in a Christmas film). When the despairing George Bailey stands on that bridge on that snowy Christmas Eve, ready to jump into those icy waters and end it all, the desperation created feels as real as the notion of Bailey’s suicide (someone I once watched it with even said she felt the film hard to take because of how dark it is)… it’s so convincing, and genuine, in fact, it manages to do what seems an impossible task – turn what in almost every other film would feel like an overwhelming level of contrived shmalz and overdone goodwill being thrown at us in its final scenes… into something powerfully heart-felt, tear-worthy… and — most impressively — entirely earned. The film manages a real emotional rollercoaster ride concluding, amazingly enough (as my cynical nature is quick to recognize the exploitative disingenuous nature of so many of them), one of the most satisfyingly joyous Christmas endings ever captured on film.

Stewart, with his natural affability and stuttering charm, was born to play in Frank Capra films (well, okay, in Hitchcock ones too, but those were a bit different), but “Wonderful Life” has to be his greatest role. There are moments where he displays such astonishing conviction and raw emotional commitment, it starts to feel like a performance ahead of its time — as if the actor had been transported to the 70’s to get some method acting training before jumping into the role.

And who would suspect that a noted Christmas film would be such a potent political allegory on the corrosive effects of capitalism? Capra’s themes on the importance of community and individual giving, as represented through the actions of George Bailey — and how those are the ties with which to defeat corrupt capitalists, embodied by Bailey’s eternal nemesis, the rich, fat, mean-spirited and wheel-chair bound (as actor Lionel Barrymore genuinely was confined to) powerful banker Potter (in a brilliantly nasty turn by the great aging thesp, playing a character who I realized as I watched this time, my New York comrade, the film director and actor Larry Fessenden, would have a ball digging his teeth into in a remake if ever given the chance, and a bit of aging makeup), whose life is committed to taking over and controlling everyone and everything in the town, are themes that have done nothing but grow even more important, especially with this latest massive wealth transfer upstream (on a level even more staggering than we’ve apparently grown used to), with a concurrent outright destruction of small businesses below, directly due to these lockdown measures.

The vision of the town imagined by the angel Odbody, of a now dark, angry Bedford Falls, renamed Pottersville, no longer granted the warm effects of socialized community that Bailey spread, is unforgettably realized — if, I admit I noticed for the first time on this latest viewing, a tad revealing of an obvious conservative lean by our man Capra (perhaps I was previously blocking it out, avoiding it like you do for your old granddad, for instance, who always seems to be making those racist or homophobic remarks – of which, by the way, Capra would unfortunately start openly making a lot of — homophobic ones, that is – in his later years regarding the ‘perversity’ he saw taking over the theater world), with the first thing Bailey comes across when walking into his once-favorite tavern in the changed town an obvious greater presence of unfettered black folk daring to joyously play music (apparently you don’t want that in your town – better for the community when they’re the housecleaning help, like Lilian Randolph’s Annie in the Bailey household of the Present, who is granted a voice, true, but only as long as does the dishes properly) and finally the presence of his school crush and eventual bride Mary Hatch (the wholesome yet entirely delectable Donna Reed) now bottomed out as a lonely librarian, having had no great patriarchal figure like George to have swept her off her feet (and into the kitchen).

Yes, yes, there’s a few questionable perspectives here – and you can be sure the millennials in the audience would snicker away, making a loud show of their endless virtue signaling, with their sense of simple-minded superiority obscuring their ability to notice any of the underlying conceits, and the earnest execution, which remain brilliant… and universal. It’s no wonder – and not without the normal painfully unjust irony that real life provides — that Capra and the screenwriters were investigated as possible subversive communists by the government’s fear-mongering House of Un-American Activities Committee (a red-baiting, Cold War-enabling organization that destroyed many Hollywood careers, primarily based on the selling to the masses the fear of a body-snatcher-like communist Russia-infiltration, something the Democrats recently ramped up yet again, unfortunately to great effect, with all of its accompanying irrational hysteria, for all sorts of similar self- and military-serving reasons… and this at a time when Russia isn’t even a communist country anymore!). Fortunately, for whatever reason, Capra and the screenwriters ultimately managed to avoid prosecution.

Along with Stewart, the overall casting is marvelous. Reed is as gorgeous and engaging as ever, embodying the two qualities that are often presented as mutually exclusive – she’s a major hottie, while also retaining the innocence of the girl next door. Thomas Mitchell provides his familiar (but never unwelcome) kindly, yet drunken (and, in this case, slightly inept, as he’s the one who clumsily sets in motion the event that leads to Potter getting an upper hand over Bailey and Bailey’s ultimate despair) sidekick role. There’s also an early part by usual vixen Gloria Grahame, adding texture by doing her sultry thing as Violet, the local loose lady about town, who might even be a prostitute (and, in one of Capra’s more progressive touches, she is treated with surprising non-judgement by the town, only becoming a pariah in Pottersville, the re-imagined town that never developed a caring communal vibe). As I often point out in watching these films from the 30’s and 40’s, while it’s true that the studio moguls were fascistic and repressive to their stars, they also understood (and loved) cinema (unlike the faceless bottom-line corporate boards of today) and, man, did they master the art of character-actor casting.

So. It’s official. After experiencing this indelible life-affirming Capra vision yet again (though the very first time with the added pleasure of showing it to my daughter), I’ve now decided to make it essential annual family viewing… that is, for as long as I’m granted a place within this mortal coil.

The Little Soldier

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cinéclub event without a few additional cinematic discoveries before the main feature to get the night started, and this cold snowy holiday occasion was no different, with Phil presenting two animated Christmas-set shorts straight from the archives.

I knew nothing of Paul Grimault before the night, but after seeing his The Little Soldier from 1948, a beautiful (and colorfully rich, which thankfully shows through in the quality print) evocation of a wounded toy soldier’s return from battle to the broken down store where the toy still resides, amongst the post-war residue of the many other long-abandoned store toys, his great ballerina figurine love, I’ve gotten at least a nice glimpse at why he’s considered one of the great French animators. With the particularly limited character movements playing organically as part of their ‘toy personas’, Grimault manages to bring the various toy characters (and ominous crows, and mournful snowman and evil toy villain) to elegant life. And while narratively a simple story of love conquering jealousy, the filmmaker imbues the world with an almost aching sense of post-war sorrow.

The Great Toy Robbery

For the follow-up, the National Film Board of Canada-funded The Great Train Robbery, animator Jeff Hale takes things into a decidedly lighter (though no less satisfying) direction. In a sort of free-wheeling romp of a tale that finds Santa Claus sledding across the Spaghetti West, jolly Saint Nick ends up enlisting the unwitting aid of a clueless cowboy dressed in all-white (riding a horse that never listens to a single one of his commands) to help get back the bag of toys stolen from his sled after he (and his reindeer) are held up by three masked men at gunpoint. As did Grimault with The Little Soldier, Hale cleverly manages to use his particular animation style (and its unique limitations) to perfectly capture the vibe of the piece. And as haunting and evocative as The Little Soldier is, The Great Train Robbery is laugh out loud funny, together a nice complement for an overall very nice holiday evening.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), with special Xmas treats The Little Soldier (Paul Grimault, 1948) & The Great Toy Robbery (1963, Jeff Hale)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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