12 Days of Alt Christmas Viewing — #5: Supernatural Intervention Christmas Movies
Of course Christmas itself is entirely about supernatural intervention: God sending his son to intervene in the fate of mankind, etc. That story has an extremely dark climax before its redemptive ending. So I suppose it’s not surprising that many more recent holiday tales of otherworldly mediation follow a simiar structure. Dickens, of course, wrote the grandaddy of these with “A Christmas Carol” (more on that one later). Meanwhile here are four more such tales — three of them, from the 1940s, are much darker than you might assume…
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I am not the only person who feels its time this film was redeemed. Like so many Christmas-setting movies, people dismiss it as being sentimental schmalz without having actually seen it. Over the past few years though people have begun to recognize how heartbreakingly dark this film actually is.
This film makes you invest in decades of small town, American dreaming via the character of one brave, defiant, intelligent and funny George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart). And it does so, it turns out, in order to interrogate and dash all those very American hopes and dreams in which it made you invest. Ow. It says to you: “Hey you bleeding hearts, all your hard work and sticking up for little guy is going to leave you worth more dead than alive. Merry Christmas.”
It says, some other stuff too, but it never really takes back that cruel message. That’s probably why this film was not a box office success when it came out for Christmas of 1946. Looking back now, it’s easy to see that times were dark enough, just after WWII, so that audiences were not eager for a holiday tale that so accurately reflected the morose zeitgeist, no matter how life-affirmingly the film concluded.
Because of this lukewarm reception the film slipped into obscurity and then into the public domain. In the 1980s it could therefore be televised on the cheap, and so it was, ad nauseam, until everyone associated it with cheap holiday sentiment. Well, the cost to broadcasters was cheap, but it might also be that the anti-financial-success theme could only be ironically embraced in the 1980s. “No man is a failure who has friends…” said Michael Milken.
I remember first seeing it on TV when I was about twelve years-old and being shocked. I really thought after always doing the unselfish, moral, brave and right thing, George would finally get to realize his dreams, because wasn’t that exactly the American-dream-promise? Wasn’t that what all happy-ending taught one? Hard work, boot straps, integrity, eat your kale, exercise daily, wear sunscreen, don’t accumulate credit card debt, blah blah blah, triumphs in the end? “Yeah, right!” says this film, “Psyche! Dream on, suckers!”
(Spoiler Alert) George never escapes his small-town life. One could go so far as to say he never transcends his class. Instead this story forces him to re-evaluate his very ideas of success and happiness, not to mention of “freedom” of which we are so fond in this country. George must realize a different basis for his self-worth, and he must do it by going through an ordeal almost like death. He does go through it, and he does have an epiphany about his own worth, so the ending is happy. Nonetheless, it’s a bitter-sweet happiness with emphasis on the bitter.
Oh yeah, and there’s an angel. Thank god for the angel because without him this film would be so dark there’d be a flood of people jumping off bridges annually. As played by Henry Travers, Clarence the Angel is adorably hapless. Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, Gloria Graham, Beulah Bondi, Frank Falen and a host of other brilliant character actors make up the best ensemble cast ever.
Director Frank Capra was himself an Italian-American immigrant whose personal politics seem to have vacillated from one pole to the other. (He reminds me vaguely of my own ancestors in this way). Definitely humanitarian, he could be liberal in many ways and conservative in many others. This was his first commercial film after having made propaganda documentaries during WWII, so it is perhaps not surprising that he was in a dark and questioning frame of mind.
[Arclight Cinemas screening this on the big screen TODAY 12/16 also on DVD]
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
[That’s one of those bizarre 1940s trailers that doesn’t really show you the movie. See also: Miracle on 34th St‘s original trailer. Weird.]
(Henry Koster, Samuel Goldwyn Co.) 1947 was a dark year in the American Psyche in general and in Hollywood in particular. Nonetheless, this tale of an angel (Cary Grant) sent to help a Bishop (David Niven) struggling with his conscience and faith, who winds up romancing the bishop’s wife (Loretta Young) is darned uncomfortable. An adulterous angel?! That’s what makes it great, of course. Grant, as the angel, plays it charming with an edge of sinister subterfuge that he doesn’t show again until Charade (1963), and frankly he’s much more trustworthy in that film playing a double-agent. He’s one scary angel here, which begs the question: what in the devil is this film saying?
But this film comes from ye olde days when a film didn’t have to telegraph a single message loud and clear. It could instead toy with you, be ambivalent, question without answering, and be funny, warm, cynical, and festive in turns. And if the film had a script by Richard E. Sherwood (Rebecca, The Best Years of Our Lives, Abe Lincoln in Illinois) and Leonardo Bercovivi (Portrait of Jenny) with input from Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett — you could expect it to deftly juggle dark cynicism, shrewd wit, tenderness, (adulterous) romance, holiday spirit and atheism like so many snowballs.
Monty Wooly (The Man Who Came to Dinner), Gladys Cooper, James Gleason (Meet John Doe) and Elsa Lanchester make up the colorful supporting cast. [on DVD and on TCM 12/24 8PM EST]
Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
(RKO) Independently produced by cinematographer Lee Garmes, directed by former Keystone Cop A. Edward Sutherland, and scripted by Adele Comandini (Christmas in Connecticut), this is one odd little film — or maybe it’s several different films, which is what makes it odd. I can’t even tell you for sure who the protagonist here is.
Three elderly engineers (Charles Winninger, Harry Carey, and C. Aubrey Smith) are stood up by their guests on Christmas Eve. With the help of their international household staff (including beautiful Maria Ouspenskaya) they’ve got quite a spread, so Michael, the optimist of the trio decides it’s their night to make new friends. They each put a business card and ten dollars into their wallets and toss them into the streets. One wallet isn’t returned, the second is returned by singing cowboy, Jimmy (impossibly young Richard Carlson [Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space), the third is returned by pretty young orphanage worker, Jean (Jean Parker).
The young couple falls in love, and soon plan to marry, but when they return to ask Michael, George, and Allan to be their three best men, they learn they have just died in a plane crash. The ghosts of the three dead men watch as the young people go on with their lives. Jimmy’s singing career leads him away from Jean and into the arms of a show biz vamp (Helen Vinson)….
This film has its charms, but doesn’t seem fully realized, story-wise, to me. In other similar ghost stories — Topper, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Canterville Ghost, and of course A Christmas Carol — the person requiring the intervening can see and interact with the ghost and thus gets over or gets past some obstacle. That’s not the case here, and that leads to problems in terms of character development and story structure.
So it’s not a great film, but it is an intriguing one. It cries out to be a double-feature with Michael Powell’s slightly bizarre A Matter of Life and Death (1946); both films offer up a vision of celestial justice.
(Incidentally, apparently musical cigarette boxes were the Sharper Image top gift of Christmas 1940 as they appear prominently in both The Shop Around the Corner and this film.)
[You can rent the colorized version on YouTube for $2.99, or the original BW version is there for free]
Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
(Richard Quine, Columbia) The supernatural intervention here isn’t celestial — it’s witches, not angels, but this film does indeed start with one wild boho Christmas Eve in Greenwich Village. Spells are cast, Jimmy Stewart falls for Kim Novak, snow falls, Jack Lemmon plays bongos, Jean Louis gowns are sported, and in general I just want to crawl into this movie-world and live happily ever after with Pyewacket. [I covered this more fully in an earlier post]