National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Hollywood Classics for the Season

BY John Prizer

November 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/15/98 at 2:00 PM

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947): 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.

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.

Director George Seaton and co-screenwriter 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 remade for television and as a feature, but neither has the power of the original.

The Bishop's Wife (1947): Based on Robert Nathan's novel, the film was 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.

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): The movie begins with 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' 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 co-workers.

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.

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. It's AWonderful Life demonstrates the power of goodness to change lives and the difference each individual can make if he tries.

John Prizer