EACH YEAR the Christmas lights on West Los Angeles streets are turned on a few days earlier. This gradual expansion of the holiday season isn't driven by spiritual concerns. Merchants are eager to get the public buying as soon as possible since their profit margins increasingly depend on big Christmas spending.
The health of the local economy is judged by how well the various stores are doing in comparison to previous years. Newspapers and TV news shows monitor these developments closely so commercial factors are on everyone's mind while we shop.
As we get closer to Christmas eve, store crowds become larger and traffic jams more frequent. All this brouhaha makes it difficult to remember why we celebrate Christmas. Our Lord's birth and the genuine spirit of giving can be lost in the frantic rushing around.
Once upon a time Hollywood regularly produced movies that concerned themselves with these issues, and a trip to the video store or a viewing of the right classic on light-night TV can help us resist the materialism that has corrupted this holy season.
The original Miracle on 34th Street (1947) tackles the subject head on. Macy's department store in Manhattan hires as Santa Claus an old man from a retirement home who calls himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwen). When shoppers can't find what they're looking for on the premises, he recommends other establishments that might carry the merchandise.
At first Macy's officials try to make him change his ways, but the old man is adamant.
“That's what I've been fighting against for years,” he declares. “The way they commercialize Christmas.”
Eventually Mr. Macy himself backs Kris Kringle because his open-minded generosity attracts more customers to the store. The old man isn't satisfied, though. He insists he's really Santa, and this is even more threatening to store executives.
Susie Walker (Natalie Wood), the six-year-old daughter of the woman who hired him, has been brought up not to believe in “superstitions,” like Santa Claus. However, Kris Kringle's sweet nature wins over the little girl, and her mother (Maureen O'Hara) wants him fired.
The store psychologist goes after the old man with a vindictiveness Mrs. Walker never intended, and has him committed to a mental hospital. When steps are taken to make this institutionalization permanent, Walker's lawyer-boyfriend (John Payne) undertakes his defense. At issue in court is whether or not there is a Santa Claus, and if so, is this old man he?
Director George Seaton and coscreenwriter Valentine Davies handle each twist and turn of the plot with skill and charm, and in the end you'll probably find yourself agreeing with Kris Kringle that “Christmas is a frame of mind” and “faith is believing things that common sense tells you not to.”
Miracle on 34th Street has been re-made for television and recently as a feature, but neither has the power of the original. The Bishop's Wife (1947), based on Robert Nathan's novel, was also recently redone as The Preacher's Wife with equally unsuccessful results. In the original, Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The stress of raising money for a new cathedral has done him in, leaving his work and his relationship with his wife seemingly without meaning.
In answer to desperate prayers, a suave angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) appears, but the bishop has trouble believing he's genuine. The prelate's wife, Julia (Loretta Young), is impressed by the angel's kind way of dealing with her friends. She observes how he raises the spirits of the cynical Professor Wuthridge (Monty Woolley) who has lost his faith in God and humanity. Soon Julia's spending time with Dudley that she used to spend with her husband. As an angel, it would never occur to Dudley to get physical, but it's clear the attraction is mutual.
In one of the film's most enjoyable moments, the two go ice-skating, and Dudley's ability to create little miracles enables them to glide around the pond with the free-wheeling skill of accomplished professionals. Predictably, the bishop is jealous and tries to kick the angel out of his household.
The prelate's personal and professional problems all come to a head on Christmas eve, and Dudley must work hard to bail him out. Director Henry Roster and screenwriters Robert Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici alternate between laughter and pathos as the holiday season becomes a time of true celebration for all the movie's characters.
It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is perhaps the most outstanding of all the classics that attempts to dramatize the Christmas spirit. When the movie begins, we hear everyone in the small town of Bedford Falls praying for George Bailey (James Stewart). It's Christmas eve, and the hard-working banker is thinking about killing himself. The supplications of his family and friends are heard, and an angel is sent to rescue him.
In preparation for his mission, the angel is shown all the important events in George's life up until that moment. George's father ran a bank that loaned money to ordinary citizens at affordable rates. His nemesis was the greedy millionaire, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who wanted to keep the townsfolk poor and propertyless so he could better exploit them.
Because the needs of the bank's clientele always came before profits, the business was always on the verge of collapse. When George's father dies, he is forced to cancel his plans for college and go to work in the bank to keep the institution afloat.
The young man marries his long-time sweetheart, Mary (Donna Reed), and the two save for a long honeymoon abroad. On the day they're scheduled to leave, however, there's a run on the bank, and George is forced to use the money saved for the trip to bail out the business. Because of his dedication, most of Bedford Falls's working class realize their version of the American dream and acquire their own homes.
One Christmas eve George discovers a shortfall between the bank's assets and cash in hand. When he goes to Potter for help though, the old miser threatens to have him arrested.
Director Frank Capra and screenwriters Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Jo Sworling, and Phillip Van Doren Stern don't pull their punches as George begins to unravel. He loses his temper frequently, lashing out unfairly at family and coworkers.
In order to prevent George from committing suicide, the angel gives him “a chance to see what the world would have been like” if he had never been born. When this fantasy is presented to him, George observes that most of the towns-folk live in slums owned by Potter instead of owning their own homes.
“Where are the houses?” George asks. “You weren't there to build them,” the angel replies.
The town supports itself as a center of gambling, strip joints, pawn shops, and unsavory bars. The warm community feeling that George experienced has been replaced by a cold, desperate hostility. His wife is an old-maid librarian, and his mother a bitter shrew running a boarding house.
“You see, you had a wonderful life,” the angel tells him.
“Please God, let me live again,” George tearfully asks.
Like the other two movies under discussion, It's A Wonderful Life demonstrates the power of goodness to change lives and the difference each individual can make if he tries. These are suitable Christmas lessons to keep in our hearts as we plunge into the hurly-burly of last-minute shopping.
John Prizer, the Register's art and culture correspondent, is based in Los Angeles.