[8 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Holiday films earn their place as categorical ‘classics’ in a couple of significant ways. The first is in the standard language of film itself. They’re funny or sweet, dramatic or creatively compelling, outside of the need to express a certain seasonal sentiment. Naturally, the next element in play is the found festive value. Either a movie encompasses what you feel about Easter, or Halloween, or Christmas, or it misses the emotional benchmark by miles. And then there are those titles that transcend both, to combine solid (if now sketchy) cinematic value with precise focused celebratory fellowship to make all other offerings pale in comparison. Just in time for Noel 2009, Paramount it putting out a pair of these timeless attempts - White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Like Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story, both of these old fashioned merriment masterworks celebrate the best of December 25th - peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, harmony, unity, friendship, and humble appreciation. They also touch on darker, perhaps disturbing themes for holiday fare. White Christmas, while most of the time a sunny Irving Berlin musical, has a down on his luck WWII vet as part of the plotline. It’s a Wonderful Life is even more austere, using the attempted suicide of a main character as a way of showing him the value in hearth and home. While they me be right out of the Saturday Evening Post with their Norman Rockwell-esque moralizing and message, one cannot deny how thoroughly entertaining and iconic they both are.
Of course, the 1954 Technicolor epic starring Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen has the advantage of Berlin’s unbelievable score. Though the title song was originally introduced in 1942’s Holiday Inn (also starring Crosby), it resonates here with a yuletide magic all its own. The narrative revolves around Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a pair of army buddies who become a major post-war nightclub and Broadway sensation. As they tour around the country, they are asked to audition Betty and Judy Haynes, a sister act. Happenstance puts them all at the failing lodge of ex-General Tom “The Old Man” Waverly. Having sunk all his savings and pension into the business, the performers decide to put on a show, in hopes it will save his sagging fortunes. Filled with amazing musical numbers and old fashioned Hollywood hokum, this sublimed styled extravaganza is a genuine expression of pure holiday cheer.
On the other hand, while Christmas’ Michael Curtiz is no slouch (he did direct Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy after all), It’s a Wonderful Life has the undeniable immigrant genius of Frank Capra behind the lens. Responsible for such memorable masterpieces as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and A Hole in the Head, this black and white wonder sees Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed star as George and Mary Bailey. He is a sentimental old dreamer who has sacrificed his dreams of being a builder to run his family’s savings and loan. Years later, scheming slumlord Henry Potter uses a mistake by one of George’s employees to place the bank in jeopardy. When he asks the crooked old coot for help, he is soundly turned down. Wanting to kill himself, George is stopped by an angel who offers him a chance to see what life would be like if he were never born. The results help George face the challenges ahead.
It’s amazing to think that both of these films are so well-loved and embraced, especially when you consider how different they are. As with many off-the-cuff showcases, Berlin’s music is shoehorned into a standard rags-to-riches-to-reciprocity plotline, Kaye and Crosby wanted to do good for an old friend and fellow war veteran. With Clooney and Ellen as enviable arm candy and a collection of superbly craft numbers (including “Sisters” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”) White Christmas works despite itself. Indeed, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house after a rousing finale that shows allegiance and camaraderie never go out of style. It’s a Wonderful Life is a much more complicated film. In fact, when it was initially released, it was considered a flop. The material is very dense, dealing with failed ambitions, unexpected consequences, and the frequent disappointments and disasters that befall everyday life.
For George Bailey, everything is a matter of corollary - his father’s failed health, his marriage to Mary, his decision to create an affordable housing project in town, the evil manipulation of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore is a revelation in the villainous role). Everything links together, making his wish to be dead even more significant. By seeing what he means to the rest of the town, to people as important as his own family and as fleeting as his customers, George realizes there is more to living than getting what you want. Appreciating what you have is equally important. While Capra has often been accused of being a grand manipulator, working his scripts into specific servings of cinematic schmaltz, It’s a Wonderful Life suffers little from such saccharine conceits. It is frequently hard, often uncompromising, and rarely lets its characters off the hook. While White Christmas breezes along like a shimmering, singular snowflake, Capra post-war commentary is the blizzard that usually follows.
While they’ve been released and re-released any number of times, Paramount’s attention to added content details and final visual polish makes either title a must-own. It’s a Wonderful Life comes in a dimensional box featuring a commemorative tree ornament, as well as a chance at eight free holiday MP3 downloads. Inside, you will get both the bold monochrome and the unnecessary colorized version of the film, as well as a documentary on its making and a tribute to Capra by his son. White Christmas, on the other hand, is overloaded with bonus features. There is a commentary from the late great Ms. Clooney, a collection of backstage recollections, an overview on each of the main actors involved, and a chance to see the new theatrical version of the film come to life onstage (the live version is currently in previews around the country). As a means of remembering that special someone this gift giving season, either digital package is just perfect.
Of course, cinema scholars will hem and haw at the praise given to either film. For many, White Christmas is all tinsel and not real lasting impact, a bright and sparkly vehicle for seasoned performers to do what they do best. It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, is often dismissed as too idealistic (the FBI at the time even branded it “Communist” for making a banker the bad guy) and naïve. In fact, it is often pointed out that the movie was never considered a yuletide treat until it slipped into the public domain in the ‘70s, and then repeated ad infinitum on numerous TV stations ever year. Still, those sound like the grumblings of Grinchs who find anything merry and mistletoed to be worthy of contempt. Before it became a crass commercialized excuse for going broke, the holidays used to be a commemoration of existence. Films like White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life remind us of that, no matter how hokey, wholesome, or homespun, there’s a reason for the season.