Sunday, December 21, 2008

Five Favorite Christmas Movies

These are in ascending order.

5. 3 Godfathers (1948). Nothing gets you in the mood like an immediate invocation of the dead, and that's what John Ford gives us with his homage to Harry Carey. The story proper is a riff on the Three Wise Men, who here are three thieves who encounter a dying mother in the desert and promise to bring her newborn to civilization despite a posse hunting them down. Two of them don't make it. This is one of the last appearances of the younger, fallible, more vulnerable John Wayne, and he has a standout scene as the last survivor wandering through the desert, haunted by his partners and rambling like a madman. The gravity of the situation and the good work by Harry Carey Jr. and Pedro Armendariz earn the film its happy ending.

4. It's A Wonderful Life (1946). Familiarity breeds contempt (see Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and A Christmas Story), but Frank Capra's film is less omnipresent than it used to be. Again, the payoff is earned by pain, in this case James Stewart's lifetime of deferred gratification and small-town struggle. It may overstate the difference one man could make between decency and despair for so many others, but people probably need to hear that idea every so often. For some, the ideal chaser might be the Saturday Night Live skit with the "alternate ending" in which the cast lynches Mr. Potter. In fact ...

But let's move on.

3. A Holiday Affair (1949). I really like this movie for one scene: Wendell Corey's renunciation of Janet Leigh so she can hook up with Robert Mitchum. While making it clear that he realizes that Leigh is not the woman for him, Corey expresses himself with an extraordinary generosity of spirit that fits the season. "No time is wasted that makes two people friends" is one of my favorite lines in cinema, when I'm in a sentimental mood.

2. Batman Returns (1992). Christmastime in Gotham City is a season of miracles. Call it what you will -- rebirth, resurrection, transfiguration -- but Tim Burton's decision to set his sequel during the holiday season gives his peculiar approach to Catwoman's origin some thematic validity. The holidays often make me melancholy, so I dig the doomed romance of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, who is, arguably, Christlike in her ultimate determination to resist temptation and fulfill her purpose on earth. And of course there's a promise of a second coming at the end. It's a beautifully designed film and admirably performed by it's cast. It was my favorite Batman movie until this year, and topping Michelle Pfeiffer's performance is the one remaining challenge that might justify Christopher Nolan doing a third film.

1. Meet John Doe (1941). Long John Willoughby is even more of a Christ figure. He walks in the path of prophecy, under the shadow of the knowledge that the prophecy, Barbara Stanwyck's letter, was a lie. But as Gary Cooper says at the disastrous rally at Wrigley Field, "the idea is still good," and this erstwhile dupe decides that the only way he can redeem the idea, not to mention his demoralized followers and the woman he's come to love, is to fulfill the prophecy by killing himself. The climactic drama is played out on a snowy rooftop in a scene that Frank Capra notoriously shot several times over -- a testimony to the rich difficulty of his story rather than a failure of imagination. What Capra himself couldn't necessarily acknowledge was that his epic was incapable of conventional closure. He saw it in terms of two powerful forces cancelling one another out: the spontaneous popular movement generated by the John Doe campaign and the sinister political movement created to exploit it. But it's right to end the film with remnants of the forces still in the field, and with James Gleason's challenge: "There you go, Norton: the people! Try and lick that!" It may be maudlin for Stanwyck to dissuade Cooper from jumping by invoking Jesus (and thus repudiating the need for a new Christ figure?), but this is a Christmas movie, so the myth has an appropriate place in the story.

John Doe is one of my absolute favorite films and probably one of the most underrated in the "golden age" canon. It's a work of gigantic ambition, and clearly Capra's claim to supremacy over the upstart Orson Welles. I'm not sure how much Capra knew about Citizen Kane while he was working on Doe, but it seems more than coincidental that both films deal with the power of mass media. I see it as the conclusion of a thematic trilogy based on the actor Edward Arnold. In You Can't Take It With You Arnold's just a stodgy millionaire who succumbs to the eccentric family's silly charms by the end. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington he's a local political boss who seems to be decisively thwarted by the end of Jimmy Stewart's ordeal. In Meet John Doe he's more powerful than ever as a media mogul who hopes to ride the John Doe movement to national political power, and you're left with the impression that his decision to abort the movement may only be a temporary setback. The escalating menace embodied by Arnold reflects Capra's engagement with his troubled times, and is, in John Doe especially, also a reflection on his own role as an entertainment titan with a reputation for manipulating populist sentiment. It's the sort of "troubled" production that should trouble people. Capra's deal with Warner Bros. allowed him to assemble a dream cast among whom, beside Cooper, Stanwyck and Arnold, James Gleason and Walter Brennan should be singled out. Gleason has a great drunk scene where his ideals (and some bad wartime memories) emerge from a carapace of cynicism and raise Cooper's consciousness, while Brennan gives what I consider the best performance of his career as Cooper's wary sidekick, "the Colonel," who exhibits a degree of paranoia toward people (aka "heelots -- a lot of heels") that's extremely unusual for the era. Meet John Doe is my favorite Christmas film because it's one of my favorite films, period. It's in the public domain, so you can watch it online at your leisure. Consider it my holiday recommendation.

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