The Southerner (1945)

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It’s easy to infer there is an innate kinship between famed director Jean Renoir and the folks within this picture. Certainly, he was no peasant, by any means related to those found in Millet’s The Gleaners. However, like his painterly father Auguste Renoir (a figure I always find myself reverting back to) he had a penchant for people and nature underlined by a genteel eye for beauty.

That is not to say, Jean was exactly the same. His films can often be socially-minded, capable of both satire and commentary. But underlying such themes is always this same sense of natural and artistic pulchritude.

Though his output in the states is generally forgotten, upon closer analysis, efforts like The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) and The Woman on The Beach (1947) have glimmers of his brilliance as an auteur. We can even see how the content often fit Renoir, though the system and in some cases, the performers might not have.  However, in its day, most everyone seemed to agree that of all his efforts as an expatriate, The Southerner was his finest achievement stateside. I don’t disagree.

At its core, Zachary Scott gives an understated performance full of grit and common decency as the head of the Tucker clan. Right beside him, his wife, Nona (Betty Field) exhibits a stalwart character exuding both affection and maternal grace, a constant rock to steady her man. In an inciting event that feels strikingly similar to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Gramps dies and the family sets out on a pilgrimage in search of a new life. This will eventually lead them to a strip of land to call their own.

While Scott’s no Henry Fonda, I’m pretty sure even John Ford would consider Jean Renoir his equal if not a superior director. Regardless, both are visual filmmakers of the most visceral kind. In fact, Poetic Realism was an attempt to put a label on Renoir’s exquisite naturalism, placing the human form in environments like modern day evocations of the Garden of Eden in an otherwise sullied world. A Day in The Country (1936) or even Toni (1938) stand as stunning earlier examples from his native France.

Compared to his other American efforts, The Southerner has the most straightforward and even conventional narrative. Because the story is simplistic and the dialogue unadorned; at it’s worst it’s throwaway. However, it effectively provides a bulwark for Renoir to capture strains of humanity with a truth that gleams with his usual sensibilities. Again, like Ford, such a minimal plot frees him up for digressions that are more lyrical and character based so by the end of the picture as short as it is, we feel like we have witnessed something full-bodied and singular.

The Tuckers have the most darling little kids. Beulah Bondi subverts her angelic image as the cackling, particularly ornery granny. Their new life is hard, their resources scant, and yet the Tuckers are cisterns full to the brim with indefatigable spirit. Sam is driven by the humble desire of Man to cultivate his own land. He never says it implicitly but God was a Creator and so it’s almost innate for him to want to do some of the same.

But Tucker, like Job, is born to trouble with backbreaking labor and constant devastation. His boy is stricken with sickness needing nutrition from vegetables, lemons, and milk that they either don’t have or can’t afford. The Tuckers live by a creed of family and neighborliness but they receive no such charity from those nearest to them. It’s like the gruff farmer next door is seeking to see them fail. Nature too is all but looking to sink them. There’s no amount of clemency

In one pleading moment, Tucker even walks out to his decimated crop he’s toiled over for so long and talks to God in the most candid of ways. It’s like a modern-day psalmist asking the honest questions. His resolution is to keep going and hold his family together thanks to the unremitting determination shared by his wife.

However, overlaid on this is also the struggle between the new urban centers and all the natural wonders of God’s green earth. We saw it in Renoir films such as The Human Beast (1938). In Sam’s case, his friend all but guarantees him a steady factory job and yet he continually balks at the chance. His calling is to be in the fields no matter how inexorable his opposition might prove to be.

The beauty is that we get a bit of a reprieve from the constant barrage of misfortune. It comes in the form of a wedding when two jolly old folks get hitched and it births the most joyous occasion. Partying ensues full of good-old-fashioned gaiety and square dancing brimming over with laughter and hilarious antics made 10 times more humorous in the company of others. Each and every one of them is a part of this grand joke. The Job-like assaults keep on coming and yet in the company of others they hardly seem as catastrophic. There you have a secret to life.

I rather like the conclusion Renoir’s film makes tacitly. It’s quite evident in the following aphorism voiced by one of the characters, “It takes all kinds to make up this world.” So this is not the Romanticist where everything mechanical and technological is inherently bad. Nor is farming or the land being tilled and cultivated any less important. They share equal footing and they need each other.

Again, it’s the humanism of Renoir fully realized. This is an American story, the most American narrative undertaken by the French director. However, in the waning days of WWII, you cannot help but see this as a universal rallying cry. Out of the ashes of destruction and international animosity, ill-will, and hatred, we need each other. Come to think of it, the credo is a timeless one at that. We could use these words now as much as we ever did. There you have a secret to the relevance of Jean Renoir.

4/5 Stars

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principles that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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The first moment Pete Morgan (James Stewart) actually catches sight of alluring nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers), the gangly botany professor proceeds to knock over a drink cooler. He’s enamored. In the movies, it’s that magical trope called “love at first sight.” For other pictures that’s where they go to die as the two loved birds get wrapped up in the throes of romance exploring New York City together. With Stewart and Rogers as our guides, there’s no place we’d rather be. Soon they are married and on their way to meet the parents in the idyllic town of Old Sharon.

Except they never get there or rather they get to the town but Pete never gets to the part about telling his parents he’s married. Charles Colburn is bullish as Peter Morgan Sr. the obdurate, overbearing intellectual who will not allow his son to get in a word edgewise. That’s aggravated by the fact that in his typical manner Stewart is always beating around the bush, never quite able to get the words out and so the happy news never finds an audience.

Besides Mr. Morgan has his sights on his son marrying the prim and proper Helen (Frances Mercer) while he turns his nose at the blonde woman that his nephew Keith (James Ellison) is traipsing around with it — that undoubtedly unsophisticated creature who also happens to be his actual daughter-in-law!

Thus, begins the film’s longest digression as wife becomes a student for the sake of being close to her husband and Pete tries his darndest to break the news to his parents while still getting time with his wife. But the guise of student and teacher isn’t helping much. They probably broke the whole code of conduct book on student-teacher relations circa 1938.

One of the favorite hot spots for late night extracurriculars just happens to have an outboard motor right next to it and it can make quite the din if accidentally pulled. Otherwise, Pete has an awful time trying to see his wife as the lobby clerk (Franklin Pangborn) is a real stickler and so the only access to her room is of a clandestine nature up the fire escape.

And still his father won’t listen to him and his former fiancee is still trying to nab him. It’s getting so hopeless that Francey thinks it might be best if she leaves Old Sharon behind for good. A memorable dance party with the parents in Francie’s room proves the kicker. Though she forms a bit of a rapport with the kindly but frail Mrs. Morgan (Beulah Bondi in 1 out of her 5 turns as Stewart’s mother), an indignant Mr. Morgan will have none of this tomfoolery.

Soon enough Francey decides to leave town of her own accord.  But even at the cost of his professorship if need be, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart won’t let her get away that easily. Whether or not this film drags a bit in the latter half is beside the point because you couldn’t have two more likable stars than Stewart and Rogers nor a Hollywood director more competent than George Stevens in balancing the breadth of slapstick comedy and romantic drama.

If the material is simply adequate enough, they are the type of talents that take us along and we will willingly be their audience through every complication. It’s our privilege.

In case there was any doubt whatsoever Ginger Rogers is awesome and it’s put on full display when she has a slap fight with her archnemesis before taking her in a headlock. If you liked her before simply for dancing prowess, she proves to be a savvy cat fighter as well.

Jimmy Stewart was still in the fairly latent stages of his illustrious career but Rogers recommended him for the role and he provides his homespun charm and length to every frame like we are accustomed to seeing from him. Not to mention his forays in home brewing. They’re quite impressive.

The only major blot on the film is an appearance of the prolific Willie Best playing his typical googly-eyed waiter — the walking stereotype that always feels like a cringe-worthy addition to any picture of old as does a cameo by Hattie McDaniels. At least there weren’t any chinamen. Not that there’s much consolation in that. Shall we just say that Rogers’ vivacity and Stewart’s universal affability make for a quality viewing experience and leave it at that?

4/5 Stars

Penny Serenade (1941)

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Irene Dunne still remains one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. She was both a lively comedienne, an impressive singer, and performed in melodrama better than most. Pair her with Cary Grant and director George Stevens and you have an impressive bulwark to build a film out of.

I disdain the rather condescending term “Woman’s Picture,” but if Mildred Pierce was one of the darkest exemplars of the genre than Penny Serenade might be one of the most heartfelt. It finds its inspiration in the revolving melodies of records on a Victrola. It’s true that music is so very powerful in evoking emotion and it is precisely these songs that lend themselves to Julie Gardiner’s myriad memories. They began when she initially met the love of her life, a budding journalist who was not too keen on getting hitched or the future prospect of having kids. But Roger’s career took him to Asia and he tied the knot with Julie because he was not about to let another man take her away from him.

The rest of the film can best be described as a marital drama concerned with the many moments that make up a marriage. The thrill of the honeymoon period. The little marital tiffs. The tough times when your fledgling self-run paper is not doing the best. The struggles of trying to have kids or wanting to adopt and realizing the process is far more arduous than you first expected. All of these moments can be found in Penny Serenade. But it is one of the sweetest that also becomes the most heartbreaking.

Julie and Roger get the child that they so desire and it’s hard and trying and oh so scary, but they make a go of it and truly revel in being parents. But even that joy is taken away from them. It’s that same pain that shakes the foundations of their marriage just like the deadly earthquake they experienced in Japan. Once more amidst the heartbreaking tremors, there are wonderful revelations and an ultimate resolution that is good.

It’s true that Penny Serenade is overlong, lacking a great deal of substantial conflict or direction but it certainly plays to its strengths. The third time around Grant and Dunne continue their impeccable chemistry that carries the film alongside the direction of George Stevens who always seems to know how to helm both drama and comedy with ease. And the secondary roles are filled out marvelously by the always venerable Beulah Bondi and a noticeably younger Edgar Buchannan playing his usual old softie with a gravelly voice.

So if you’re in a sentimental mood tune into Penny Serenade a film that is less of a classic than a film that rides on the laurels of its main players who elevate the storyline above the normal fray through sheer charisma and ingenuity. While Grant is always remembered as a comedic actor, there are several notable heart-wrenching sequences where he taps into a different side of his persona.  In the end, having Cary Grant and Irene Dunne together again is worth it in itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Remember the Night (1940)

remember_the_night_posterI find that many of the best Christmas movies aren’t really about Christmas at all — at least not in the conventional sense that we’re so used to. Not trees or presents or lights or even holiday sentiment although those might all be there.

The films that start to tease out the true meaning and impact of the Christmas season start by looking at people and their relationships with one another. Because, truth be told, we so often get distracted by the bright colors and shiny objects that get in our way.

That’s actually part of what Remember the Night is about. Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman who has a penchant for stealing jewelry. She’s not a kleptomaniac or wrong in the head, she’s just a poor, unspectacular woman with nothing to show for in life. She lives in a hotel. And so the minute she’s apprehended and prosecuted in the courtroom you would assume that it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Except this is a romantic film starring the likes of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck working from a script from Preston Sturges and under the guidance of Mitchel Leisen. So obviously that tips us off that love is in the air. Especially during the Christmas season, love is all around us — peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

Except when Lee’s trial is postponed by the astute district attorney on the other side of the table, it looks like she’s in for an abysmal holiday. She has no money, no place to go, and she’ll be spending her time behind bars (with a Christmas dinner of course). But John Sargent goes through a change of heart and his heart is fairly big when you get to know him. He ends up getting Lee out of jail for Christmas dinner as recompense and goes a step further still by inviting to take her back to her family home. They both hail from rural Indiana.

In this leg of the film, on the road, they begin to warm to each other. A certain amount of empathy sets in as they must flee pell-mell from some small town law enforcement after unlawfully milking a cow on private property. However, John also stands by his new companion when she returns to her childhood home — a place she ran away from at an early age — she’s not welcomed back.

And while it doesn’t tell the story of Christmas overtly, it’s at this point that Remeber the Night begins to make sense. Hence the title. At least in my mind. Because what night would you remember? The logical progression of thought would be the first Christmas — the moment where the biblical narrative notes that there was no room for the child in the inn and so he was forced to be housed in a lowly manger on that silent night.

If you look at John’s mother and aunt played so lovingly and nurturing by Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson, you get the sense that they were probably aware of that event. However, how they act is also a natural outpouring of their hospitable natures. They welcome Lee into their home, they welcome her like family, they go so far out of their way to make her comfortable. Certainly, this is only a backdrop for the broader more sentimental focal point of the film which we were expecting. The accused and the prosecutor begin falling in love, but they still have to return to the courtroom when their holiday is over.

But that’s what wonderful films do. They work above and beyond their plotline being displayed at face value. Sturges was always a spectacular screenwriter even before becoming a director and here he develops a tale that comes off less frenetic than many of his later works, but it’s also imbued with a great amount of feeling. But credit also goes to Leisen for tailoring the script to his leads.

And as it’s set during the holidays, that makes it into a timely movie for the Christmas season (and New Years). Because the bottom line is that it’s about love, but not just in the romantic sense. Love of family. Love of your fellow man (and woman). Love of other people so much so that you are willing to sacrifice and take on the penalty for your actions, deserved or not. If we strip down the impact of Christmas to its core elements that’s essentially what it is about as well. So remember this movie during the holidays and remember that night if you’re so inclined.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

4/5 Stars

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Make-way-for-tomorrow-1937It seems like Leo McCarey and this film for that matter often get lost in the shuffle. In his day he was a highly successful and well thought of director of such classics as The Awful Truth and Going My Way. However, his moving drama Make Way For Tomorrow is now often overshadowed by a similar film that used it as inspiration, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).

I will not pass judgment on which film I like more. In fact, to even begin to make a decision I would have to go back to both. However, this film opens by restating the 5th commandment. Honor thy father and thy mother. After all, this film is certainly about the gap between generations, parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren, but at its core is this main concern. Honor thy father and thy mother.

The film opens in the home of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi). 4 of their 5 grown children are gathered together on the request of their parents who have something to tell them. Because their father has not been able to work, the bank is taking their house and so they will be displaced. Thus, the story is set up as the kids worry about what to do, because no one feels capable of taking both parents. Finally, it is decided that eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell) will take Mother, and one of the sisters will take father.

It is difficult for everyone. The old folks are split up for one of the first times in their 50 years of marriage. Meanwhile, grandma disrupts bridge lessons, makes life more of a nuisance on George’s daughter, and forces the maid to take on more hours. It does not make anyone angry at first, but it begins rubbing and chafing. Creating bitterness and annoyance which is arguably worse. Things reach the breaking point when George’s peeved wife finds out that her daughter is rendezvousing with men, and she is not happy at all when grandma confesses to knowing about it. She loses her temper and grandma apologizes. Seeing a letter from a retirement home she quietly decides it would be better for all if she simply moves there.

Her husband does not fare much better, and the harsh New York weather is taking a toll on his health. Furthermore, his daughter is obviously getting tired of him as her patience continues to wear thin. Mr. Cooper does make a friend in a kindly old shop owner (Maurice Moscovitch), but he soon is turned off as well. Finally, his daughter decides to send their father out of California. She says it’s for his health, but the real reason is she wants him off their hands so her other sister can deal with him.

With this new turn of events, Barkley and Lucy have one last meeting set up so they can spend time together before he is sent off to California. This is the most touching part of the entire film because underlying this oasis is the doubt that they might not see each other again. In the wake of that proposition, they have sort of a second honeymoon. They ditch the kids and have a magical evening just the two of them, reliving their youth and remembering the olden days. The miracle of this sequence is that everyone seems to finally understand them, appreciate them, and really honor them. They are offered a ride in an automobile and are met by the hotel manager who offers them drinks and listens to their wonderful stories of times past. Even the conductor plays a slow waltz just for the two of them. It’s a beautiful extended moment that is made especially moving in contrast to the earlier scenes. These are two people who, despite their advanced years, are still very much in love. It speaks to the importance that marriage holds in the life of some people. In certain circumstances, it is not a shallow event, but a lifelong friendship that carries so much weight.

When the time comes, the two lovebirds say goodbye at the train station and we don’t know what happens to them. We can guess certainly, but McCarey leaves a sweeter taste in our mouths before finishing with a realistic ending. It’s beautiful, moving, and tearful, but not in an overdramatic sort of way. In the mundane, sorrowful way that seems to reflect the rhythms of real life. Beulah Bondi was featured in some many great films, but I’m convinced that this was her greatest performance as an individual. Victor Moore was a worthy companion for her as well. However, my favorite character was probably the shopkeeper Max, because he was such a personable man in a sea of grumbling and annoyance.

5/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This is not only a Christmas classic but a classic in any sense of the word. It is the best of Stewart and Capra adding up to one of the most heartwarming stories of all time.  This may exhibit Stewart is his everyman role once again, but it breaks away from Mr. Smith in many ways making it another uniquely great film. A film like this that makes you know and feel for characters so profoundly is certainly worth watching.

Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed with a fantastic supporting cast,  the film tells the life story of George Bailey. We watch with the angel Clarence as he sees George’s life unfold. George saves his brother Harry as a boy and as a result, loses hearing in his ear. He works in the Bedford Falls drugstore and keeps the proprietor Mr. Gower from making a deadly mistake. Later on, he plans to travel the world and go to college so he can escape his hometown and do bigger and better things. But once more he sacrifices. One fateful day, he doesn’t know it yet, but he meets the love of his life Mary, and the same day his kindly father has a stroke. Soon after,  Harry goes off to college and George is left holding down the fort at their father’s old building and loan. He builds up all those around him with selfless kindness, while simultaneously standing up to the grumpy millionaire Mr. Potter. Eventually, he marries Mary and has children. First, during the Depression George gives up his honeymoon to keep the building and loan open. Then, during WWII while his brother and others become heroes, George stays in Bedford Falls because of his poor hearing. In this post-war period, the story picks up in the present.

Although, by unfortunate circumstances George Bailey finds himself contemplating suicide after the absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000. That’s when Clarence comes into his life to show George just how important he really is. George sees a world where Harry is dead, Mr. Gower is a disgrace, Martini does not own the bar, his mother has no sons, Uncle Billy is insane, Violet is disgraced, Bert and Ernie do not know him, Mary is an old maid, and Mr. Potter has monopolized Bedford Falls.

Once he gets his life back George finds immediate joy and gains so much because of his friends and family. He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls yelling out “Merry Christmas,” because he is simply grateful to live again. Miraculously, the whole town rallies around him, and George reaps the reward for all he has sowed over the years. Clarence is finally awarded his wings and George Bailey is the richest man in town. There is nothing much to do after this film but simply be happy and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” It is a Wonderful film in many ways, with a wonderful cast, and a wonderful message. It has some of the greatest character development of any film ever because you do not simply become attached to one man but an entire community. That’s what makes the scene where Uncle Billy loses the money one of the most difficult for me to watch. Each and every time I’m so attached to these people. Even if I already know the resolution, I cannot bear for anything bad to happen to them. In fact, it is interesting to focus on just one of the supporting characters and see how they are affected by the life of George Bailey. It makes me ask myself if I were to die tomorrow would anyone care? We know in the case of George they certainly would.

I am further reminded of the phrase that is written on the wall of the building and loan, “You can only take with you, that which you give away.” This is what George Bailey did, and I believe it is something that each and every one of us should be mindful of. He is a great character not only because James Stewart played him genuinely and with such magnetism and heart, but because he was such a sacrificial figure. True, this is a sentimental film given the title and the director, but it is paramount to realize the progression this film follows. George must sink into the depths of his despair and disillusionment before he can truly realize that It’s a Wonderful Life. I would challenge you the next time you watch this film, to not simply acknowledge it as perennial Christmas fare, but look a bit deeper because there is so much more here. As always, Attaboy Clarence! You did it again.

5/5 Stars

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

84a24-mrsmithgoestowashingtonposterAs both a political drama and feel good movie, this film cemented James Stewart as an acting powerhouse. Furthermore, despite its age, it acts as a timeless reminder of the evils of political machines. It makes us root for the underdog, and it is distinctively American. Here is a cast and a story that seemingly could never be equaled, but what this film really had going for it was an idealistic outlook. I can, myself, often be a cynical person, and still Mr. Smith never fails to make me acknowledge the numerous attributes that make our country great, whether it is through montage, monuments, music, and of course Jefferson Smith himself. 

In one of his best performances, Jimmy Stewart is an idealistic, naive boy’s troop leader named Jefferson Smith. The starry-eyed Smith trusts that our nation is founded on some very noble principles that should be fought for tirelessly in government and in society. Above all, he is a likable fellow, who earnestly believes in the merits of this country, and he is beloved by boys all across the state. Now, this all sounds fine and dandy, but it would never have come across on the screen if it had not been for Stewart. He emanates this awkward and innocent energy that puts life into the idealistic creation of Jefferson Smith. 

When the film opens, everything is in turmoil when a senator suddenly dies and a replacement is needed fast. Believing Smith will be a pawn, a powerful man named Taylor (Ed Arnold) gets Smith a seat in the nation’s Senate. There he joins the respected Senator and old family acquaintance, Joe Paine (Claude Rains), who is also a cog in Taylor’s machine. However, although he is out of place in Washington, the patriotic Smith does his best to be worthy of his position. He realizes that the press will not give him a break, and the other Senators do not take him seriously.

So, on the urging of Paine, he decides to come up with a bill for a boys camp back in his home state. He requires the help of the world-weary secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) to get his bill done. Initially, she is disgusted by his naivete, but as she grows to know him, she realizes he is only going to get himself hurt. His action to propose a bill soon find him face to face with the political machine that elected him. Taylor also has stakes on the piece of land where the boy’s camp would be, and he wants it for a dam. 

Smith finds himself being accused of using his position for his personal gain, and pretty soon he is before a committee with false evidence piling up against him. With all odds and seemingly everyone else against him as well, Smith makes one last monumental effort. Thanks to the help and guidance of Saunders, Smith fights to plead his case through a filibuster.

Fatigued by many hours of giving impassioned speeches and reciting the Constitution, Smith finally collapses, but not before effectively succeeding at his task. I doubt this would ever happen in real life, but in the film, it is fantastic watching the Senate break out into complete and utter mayhem. Ultimately, a young man with “a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella,” was able to win. True, it may be overly sentimental, but it is a wonderful piece of sentiment all the same.

Frank Capra was wonderful at these type of cheering tales and his stars were in top form. There is an absolutely wonderful supporting cast here including Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Eugene Pallette Thomas Mitchell, Charles Lane, Harry Carey, William Demarest, Beulah Bondi, and numerous other familiar faces I don’t even know the names of. That’s the beauty of the studio system I guess. It may have the same director, same leading man, and some of the same general themes, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington covers completely different territory from Capra’s later classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Smith should be seen as a unique, and very much American film.


5/5 Stars