Thursday, January 28, 2010



On a cold Saturday evening, Carlos and I snuggled on the sofa had some mint Hot Cocoa (with some peppermint Schnapps for some added warmth) and watched It's a Wonderful Life (1946). After my 29 year + semi-voluntary boycott, I now join a legion of people who have watched and enjoyed this film. I am now one of many, rather than one of few.

I was very impressed by Jimmy Stewart's multi-dimensional performance as reluctant townie George Bailey. He certainly had his regular aw-shucks demeanor and it suited the character really well, but you see Bailey go through a wide range of emotions, from hopefulness, disappointment, love, anger, frustration, hopelessness, etc. And I have a tremendous soft spot for Jimmy Stewart. He is one of a serious of male actors who I look up to as fatherly figures. If Jimmy Stewart is crying on screen, I am crying off screen. George Bailey's desire to travel the world gets eclipsed by his responsibilities to his father's business and to his hometown of Bedford Falls. If Bailey leaves the town, the evil Potter (played by the completely unrecognizable Lionel Barrymore), will take over. We can't take the good out of the town and leave it to the evil. Oh no siree. And while Bailey's accomplishments probably eclipse that failure in his life, I still feel sad for him. Part of me really wants to see Bailey escape Bedford Falls and travel the world because people should allowed to live out their dreams. This film, and Capra's message, certainly is about the merit of the individual but in the end, Bailey had to sacrifice himself for his community. Bailey is a 1940's Jude Fawley if you ask me.

With really important films, especially ones that have an impact on myself and/or on others, I always go back to my inner Derrida. I want to deconstruct the film just the way he would. So I asked myself, "what makes It's a Wonderful Life so effective?". And my answer: opposites. Throughout the film, we see George Bailey and all the good he does for everyone in Bedford Falls. It isn't just enough to see it. We need to feel it too. So let's throw in a villain. Mr. Potter, the evil, greedy business magnate who is trying to take over Bedford Falls with his iron fist and cold heart. You put Mr. Potter side-by-side with George Bailey and Bailey looks a positive saint, even more so than he already did. Now you could have the film continue with just Mr. Potter battling George Bailey and you would have your standard run-of-the-mill good guy versus bad guy story. The clincher is the addition of the angel. And it's not just the angel himself. It's what the angel shows Bailey, but more important what is shown to us as the audience. We see Bedford Falls as it would exist WITHOUT George Bailey. Deconstructionism teaches us that the presence of something is intrinsically linked to it's absence. We really appreciate something when we understand it's absence as well as it's presence. It's a difficult concept to explain but once you comprehend it, it sticks with you for life and you can never shake it. We get the important of George Bailey in Bedford Falls because not only we see it but we see what life in the town would be like without him.

So what was my personal reaction to the film? I enjoyed it immensely and was very moved by it but I am okay with only watching it once in a great while. Maybe that's why this is such a Christmas classic. Once a year is probably enough for some folks. I hurt a lot for Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey and winced, cringed and hid my face in my hands/blanket at every moment of dramatic tension. It was a difficult film to watch. Carlos kept reassuring me that everything was going to be okay but it didn't help when I saw him get emotional. By the end of the film I had tears streaming down my face. Maybe it was for the best that I hadn't watched this film at the Brattle theatre.  It's always embarassing to have one's tear-soaked face exposed by the bright lights that turn on when the end credits roll.

What touched me (or bothered me) the most about this film is the kindness factor. The kindness that Bailey showed the town and the kindness the town showed back to him. Kindness is rare these days. I find that many kindnesses go unrewarded. While you shouldn't be kind to get a reward, the joy should be enough, the quality of one's life is immensely improved by acts of kindness. On some days, when I'm down and out and really need a hug or a kind word said to me, I come up empty. All I really get in return is people wanting sympathy for their own problems and not seeing that I have many of my own. Maybe people are too self-centered these days. Or maybe, just maybe I'll have my George Bailey moment one day. We'll see.

Fire of San Fransisco 1906

In continuation of yesterday's post... (some spoilers)

This movie isn't kidding around. A lot of folks even today consider San Fransisco a sinful city and it is portrayed that way in this film. There is a unique juxtaposition of various Biblical references peppered throughout the film alongside shots of sinful activities in the various seedy places of Old San Fransisco. You cannot watch this film and truly appreciate it without taking into account it's religious overtones. At one point in the film, Buckwell (Warner Oland) and his entourage are drinking and carousing in a dive in the Mile of Hell. A man barges in and boldly proclaims to all who will listen to him: "In the midst of thy inquities, God will punish thee! His wrath will fall from Heaven - ". This is a warning for sure.

The movie mostly takes place in 1906 and the biggest natural disaster that San Francisco (or California for that matter) has ever seen is imminent. The earthquake of 1906 was catastrophic and it's estimated that 3,000 people perished in the quake and the ensuing fires that engulfed the city. Most people were left homeless. We have the man's proclamation as well as other references to a vengeful God that lead us to this natural disaster at the epicenter of the film.

Dolores as Angel

In my opinion, Dolores (Dolores Costello) is the epitome of Christian innocence. She is a vertiable angel. She lives on the outskirts of the city and when she steps into the seedy parts of San Fransisco sticks out like a sore thumb. Buckwell's attempt to rape her just serves to show us how truly evil he is and how the city has got out of hand. After Buckwell gets caught and her grandfather dies trying to duel with Buckwell for her honor, Buckwell's true self is exposed to Dolores in a sort of godly revelation. Through the power of her Christianity, her god (and the ghosts of her ancestors!, she is given a moment of clairvoyance and is able to see that Buckwell isn't white as all the Chinamen in Chinatown thought. He's actually a Mongol. The titlecard reads "In the awful light of an outraged, wrathful, Christian God, the heathen soul of the Mongol stood revealed". Let's not get into the racist parts of this film, but this is useful information for Dolores. If she is able to reveal this to the Chinamen who are oppressed by this man who they thought was a white superior, she can stop Buckwell's reign of terror. He tries at all costs to stop her from revealing this. With the help of his sidekick Anna May Wong, he seeks his revenge by sneaking her into one of his brothels and having the madam dress her for services. This is not right and we know it. An angel cannot be sullied this way and just around the time she gets her first customer, she begins to pray the Our Father, while O'Shaugnessy is trying to save her with the help of Buckwell's now freed, but previously trapped midget brother, the earthquake starts. The walls collapse, rubble falls down on all the sinners and the whole city disassembles itself into chaos.

You Mongol!

To me this smacks of Samson and Delilah. So I pulled out my Oxford Annotated Bible and went to the Book of Judges Chapter 16 to refresh myself on the tale. The two stories are definitely parallel. Samson was born of barren parents who were blessed with the pregnancy by an angel of God if they promised not to cut his hair. Samson was born with incredible strength which he could keep unless his hair was cut. Delilah, a prositute and a spy for the Philistines, tries to find the secret of Samson's strength. In a moment of weakness, he tells her. She cuts his hair in his sleep and the Philistines capture Samson and gouge his eyes out. He is placed in between two pillars, in front of 3,000 Philistines for their amusement. He prays to God to give him one last bought of strength and he proceeds to bring down the pillars, and the building and he and all the Philistines perish in the rubble.

Dolores as Prostitute

Now back to the movie. Dolores has long hair, but her strength is really her innocence and beauty. Buckwell knows her strength is in her reputation as part of Spanish aristocracy and people believe and trust her because of her purity. Her weakness is Terrence O'Shaugnessy (Charles Emmett Mack), whom she loves. Buckwell traps O'Shaugnessy and uses him as ransom. He puts Dolores in a brothel (Delilah was in a brothel!) and the moment her innocence is at stake the walls fall down among everybody. It's not a perfect correlation but it's pretty darn close.

It's interesting that this story chose to equate the San Francisco earthquake as an act of God against the sinfulness of San Fransisco. I don't really have an opinion other than an objective one. In terms of storytelling, it's an interesting plot device to lead up to the earthquake. The event becomes part of the driving force of the storyline rather than something unfortunate that just happens.

I haven't seen any other films about the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906 so I'm not sure how other movies have treated the subject. Old San Francisco (1927) is a film I highly recommend to anyone with a particular interest in this important moment in US history.
O'Shaugnessy has a chance because Dolores is smitten with the senor, but he gets sidetracked with the prostitutes and booze on Cocktail Route. Will he be able to save Dolores from Buckwell's attempts to rape her and to coerce her grandfather out of his home?



Charles Emmett Mack is again his charming loveable self in this film. The moment his character lays eyes on the beautiful Dolores, he stops, stares and drops his briefcase with important documents into the carriage. You just know that at that moment he leaves his business behind to concentrate on falling in love and pursuing Dolores. My heart just melted when he says (through title cards since this is a silent picture) "Sinful ye are - hiding your beauty from a starvin' world." His character gets sidetracked a lot. Even when he is living it up with the prostitutes on Cocktail Route, you still have the feeling that he is a genuinely good guy, just misguided by all the sinfulness that San Fransisco has to offer him. He plays the most real and mult-dimensional character in the movie. Everyone else seems to be one-dimensional. Dolores is pure and good, the grandfather is proud, Buckwell is greedy and evil, etc. Yet Terrence O'Shaugnessy waivers between good and bad and grows as a person as the story develops. He comes through at the end and you find yourself rooting for him all along the way. Don't let the other big stars Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, Dolores Costello, dazzle you away from the genuine charms of Charles Emmett Mack.

Another post, just for fun and Anita Page related. I recently watched Speedway (1929) because I'm on a 1920s/1930s sports movie kick and that particular film is about auto-racing. Anita Page co-stars as a girl who reluctantly falls in love with a goofy auto-racing heir played by William Haines. Anita's outfits were wonderful so I did a series of screen caps. Here are a few. If you want to see the whole lot, check out my photo set on Flickr.


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