Since it’s a special day, I decided to depart from the line-up of still images to make a GIF of Cary Grant at his most Christmassy in The Bishop’s Wife (1947).
And, 68 years later to the day, I got to see the holiday classic on the big screen for the first time—just the way it would’ve looked for its original audiences.
This past weekend, the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York screened a crisp 35mm archival print of Capra’s masterpiece, on loan from the Library of Congress. The 1920s Moorish-style movie palace took on a festive glow for the occasion. A Christmas tree twinkled in in the lobby, a starry pattern of red and green illuminated the ceiling, and an a cappella ensemble crooned by the concession stand.
The joy of Christmas melded with joy of experiencing film on film—a pleasure so increasingly rare that I traveled 2-and-a-half hours for it! Each year the Capitol shows It’s a Wonderful Life on its carbon arc projector, one of only about 30 still in continuous use in the U.S.
Up until the 1960s, movie theaters showed films on this kind of projector, its light emitted from carbon electrodes. This means that your favorite classic Hollywood movies were originally screened by the clear intensity of carbon arc light. That’s the way they were made to be seen.
Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, and Bob Hodge, the Capitol’s projectionist, let me invade the projection booth.
As Hodge explained, if he projected the film the way it arrives from the Library of Congress, it would run upside-down and backwards.
Even in the heyday of celluloid, projectionists would run films on the theater’s own set of reels, kept in pristine condition, instead of the rougher set on which the film arrived.
It took all my willpower not to muster my best Jimmy Stewart impression and exclaim, “Merry Christmas, you old carbon arc projector!”
After the film, I got to see a very different kind of projection booth: the digital works at the Capitol’s art house venture, Cinema Capitol, which opened in late November. Jack Theakston, as well as Capitol manager Art Pierce, and Capitol board member Doug Swarthout kindly gave me a tour of the new theater.
After seeing it as essentially an empty office space in October, I was amazed by how welcoming and hip Cinema Capitol looks now. In the 52-seat theater, spectators can appreciate intriguing current releases along with digital restorations of classics. While I was there, I got to peer at Bing Crosby through the projection window as the holiday re-release of White Christmas played for a small but enthusiastic audience (who applauded at the film’s conclusion).
Needless to say, it warms my heart to see 35mm coexisting with digital right next door. From sconces made of old film reels to a retired carbon-arc projector in the lobby, the theater celebrates the old along with the new. Cinema Capitol proves that 21st century technology doesn’t have to replace the beautiful cinematic traditions of the 20th. Rather, they complement each other.
Come to think of it, the Capitol and the staff of movie fanatics who keep it alive remind me quite a lot of the Bailey Building and Loan and its staff of lovable characters. Both triumphed against the odds to preserve something meaningful and attracted a loyal crowd of admirers in the process.
And that, friends, is the true meaning of Christmas. Well, on this blog, at least.
2014 made me change my tune about a bunch of things. The Ghost of Celluloid Past must’ve been chuckling at my reactions all year.
So I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life with a very definite goal in mind. I was hoping to gain some perspective on a Christmas movie that I never greatly enjoyed.
Can I blame my former lack of fondness for the film on my generation? Then again, viewers in 1946 weren’t crazy about It’s a Wonderful Life either. It turned out to be a box office disappointment for Capra.
On a big screen, however, the film’s much-reproached corniness melted away like snowflakes on my tongue. The introspective gravity of those ethereal opening shots, as the voices of characters we haven’t met rise in prayer for a man in trouble, grabbed me and never let go.
The story and, above all, the personalities enfolded me. I couldn’t distance myself from the movie like I could in the security of my house; there was no room to chew on ideological concerns. As never before, It’s a Wonderful Life genuinely entertained me for over 2 hours.
The movie’s almost continual funniness also took me by surprise. From my dozen or so previous viewings, I’d remembered isolated bits of comic relief in what is, let’s face it, a pretty damn dark Christmas classic. On this viewing, Capra’s warm sense of humor sustained me for the duration and seemed to weave more intricately into the moments of pathos.
In fact, one of the biggest laughs arrived at the lowest point of George’s trajectory, in the barren ruin of his home, when Clarence bites Bert’s hand as a diversion. The comedy of It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t neutralize the disturbing specter of Pottersville. It actively affirms that the same higher power striving to make life worth living also has a sense of humor.
I joined an audience comprising a wide range of ages in chuckling heartily every few minutes thanks to the film’s masterful pace. As Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.”
Indeed, if you want to know how amusing a movie is—or how contagious laughter can be—watch it in a darkened theater with a hundred or so strangers.
For me, the greatest revelation was how much I cared about every character in It’s a Wonderful Life (Potter and his lackeys excepted). On a small screen, Jimmy Stewart dominates the movie so totally that his despair triggers a kind of emotional claustrophobia. Besides, not everyone can be a George Bailey—and even he didn’t want to be one. Does a life only have value to the extent that it serves other lives?
In an interview, Capra said that It’s a Wonderful Life expressed “the importance of the individual,” an unusual statement about a film that I’d considered a paean to community. As I rediscovered the film a few days ago, however, Capra’s tender attention to each and every person in Bedford Falls came across with poignant conviction. I know my limitations and I’ll never be a George Bailey. But I can aspire to be a Bert or a Sam Wainwright or an Annie. And those are all pretty wonderful things to be, I realized.
Finally, I noticed many aspects of It’s a Wonderful Life that I’d never picked up on before. As it sprawled across the Capitol’s 20-by-40-foot screen, it gave me more “cinephiliac moments” than I could possibly recount in a single post. Like how you can see the mist of Mary and George’s breath as they sing “Buffalo Gals.”
Like the dead, hollow eyes of Ernie the cabdriver, once full of such eagerness and humor, as he drives to 320 Sycamore.
Like the glistening, ghostly threads of cobwebs that tremble in the night air when George finds his house empty and abandoned.
Like the way Zuzu doesn’t know the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne,” prompting George to help her a little.
Tiny stitches in an intricate piece of embroidery, innumerable details—some intended, some improvised, some providential—added up to something I could begin to enjoy. Will it ever be a favorite of mine? Probably not. But my appreciation, like the Grinch’s heart, grew a few sizes.
For those of you who cherish It’s a Wonderful Life, believe me, you need to see it as it was meant to be seen. Treat yourself. Life is short. For those of you who don’t love it, you need to see it on a big screen even more. And, if you can, try to see it at the Capitol.
Merry Christmas to all you cinephiles!
We sings old songs and zestfully revive the traditions of bygone years. Even the most black-and-white-phobic individuals in our midst might resist the urge to change the channel when a holiday-themed classic movie comes on TV.
But how many of us celebrate by revisiting the earliest Christmas films, over 100 years old?
I invite you to join me for a very YouTube Yuletide by checking out these 10 historical treasures. Not only do they radiate nostalgia and (for the most part) good cheer, but they also bear witness to the rapid development of cinema during its first two decades of existence.
Please note that many of these films have no musical score. I recommend putting on your favorite Christmas CD (you know, provided it’s not holiday death metal or anything like that) while you watch.
Santa Claus – George Albert Smith – 1898
Just three years after the Lumière brothers shot their first movies, Santa Claus made his screen debut in this vignette by the innovative British filmmaker George Albert Smith.
Smith explored cinema’s ability to represent points-of-view and show spatial relations. More important, he used these techniques to recreate experiences, play on viewers’ emotions, and tell stories.
In Santa Claus, the magic of Christmas (combined with movie magic) prompts a vision of St. Nick arriving on a rooftop and climbing into the chimney. Although the film takes place in the bedroom of two small children, we see Santa through a kind of enchanted bubble: a clever double exposure. Then the bubble disappears as Santa enters through the fireplace in an early example of a match-on-action, showing the rough continuity of time and space.
Not bad for a film that lasts little longer than a minute!
Rêve de Noël – Georges Méliès – 1900
Savor some Belle Époque celluloid whimsy as only Méliès could do it. On Christmas Eve, a child dreams of Santa’s merry workshop, which seems to house a surprising number of 1900s Parisian music hall dancers… Meanwhile, the world at large prepares for the holiday in snowy streets, cheerful churches, and opulent feasting halls.
Comparatively low on early special effects or editing tricks, this film simply sets a jolly mood. With its eccentric Elizabethan-meets-19th-century set design and its gaggle of snow fairies dancing, Rêve de Noel is like a stack of Victorian Christmas postcards coming to life. Bask in the visual equivalent of hot buttered rum.
Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost – Walter R. Booth – 1901
Only part of the first movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol survives. Fortunately, there’s enough left to appreciate this ambitious film and imagine what the whole would’ve been like.
Walter R. Booth managed to condense all major plot points down to a few minutes. Even more impressive, he recreated the story’s supernatural elements by using practically the entire arsenal of cinematic language available in 1901. And, banging his head against those limitations, Booth invented the wipe transition.
Best remembered for his playful, special effects-loaded short films, Booth began as a porcelain painter and dabbled in magic. You can see how Booth applied his expertise from those fields to Scrooge. The miniature painter’s attention to detail reveals itself in the set decoration with touches like the “God Bless Us Every One” sign in the Crachit home. Meanwhile, Booth the illusionist gives us see-though spirits, superimposed glimpses of the past, and a dizzying flight through time and space.
Bonus film: watch this later, more elaborate adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1910), a Thomas Edison production directed by J. Searle Dawley.
The Little Match Seller – James Williamson – 1902
In case you’re overdosing on joy, it’s time for Hans Christian Andersen’s tear-jerking tale of child labor and hypothermic hallucinations!
Once again, the supernatural overtones of a popular Christmas story gave an early filmmaker the chance to experiment with special effects and integrate them into a dramatic context. Williamson uses double exposures to portray the little match girl’s visions of warmth as well as her ascent into heaven.
Like Scrooge, Or Marley’s Ghost, this adaptation blurs the line between the era’s “trick films” (and what Gunning called the cinema of attraction) and emerging narrative cinema.
The Parish Priest’s Christmas – Alice Guy – 1906
Shining with simple faith, this moving work by Alice Guy, the world’s first woman director, captures a more pious side of Christmas.
A local priest attempts to buy a statue to complete the crèche, or Nativity scene, in his church. Unfortunately, the priest and his humble flock lack the funds to purchase even the smallest stand-in for baby Jesus. But lo! At mass, beautiful angels appear and reward the congregation’s devotion by bestowing an effigy of Jesus to fill the cradle.
In The Parish Priest’s Christmas, Alice Guy deploys special effects for maximum dramatic impact. The film’s deliberate pace and the naturalistic interactions between characters draw the audience into the priest’s dilemma. This realistic atmosphere makes the heavenly vision at the end (achieved through hidden cuts) even more striking and poignant.
A Trap for Santa Claus – D.W. Griffith – 1909
Dad’s drunk, unemployed, and arguing with mom. Now it feels like Christmas! Anticipating the bleakness of the Pottersville scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life, this socially-conscious Biograph film reminds us that Christmas doesn’t exist for those in dire poverty.
A despairing father abandons his indigent wife and children. On the verge of starvation, his wife inherits a small fortune and moves into a lavish home in time for Christmas Eve. When her children set a trap to catch Santa Claus, little do they know that they’ll end up bringing their father—now turned a burglar—back into their lives. All we need is a Santa suit and the family reunion will be complete…
D.W. Griffith had only been directing films for about a year when he made this short holiday melodrama, which might be why it stands out as particularly, well, melodramatic. The acting harkens back to the 19th century stage, but please don’t judge all silent movies (or Griffith’s) based on this one.
The Night Before Christmas – Edwin S. Porter – 1905
Edwin S. Porter, a pioneer of narrative logic in cinema and director of The Great Train Robbery (1903), evokes the snowbound wonder of Clement Clarke Moore’s beloved poem. And, as in The Great Train Robbery, Porter ends the film with a fourth-wall-breaking shot (not unusual in early movies) as Santa Claus acknowledges the spectators and wishes them a merry Christmas.
My favorite entry on this list, The Night Before Christmas involved a herd of apparently real reindeer, as well as an adorable model version to show their “flight” from the North Pole. You can see the whole iconography of Christmas as we know it today—the jolly red suit, the list that Santa’s checking twice, and the magical sleigh. Intertitles with verses lifted straight from Moore’s poem contribute to the film’s charm.
A Christmas Accident – Harold M. Shaw – 1912
In the time-honored tradition of nasty-people-redeemed-by-holiday-zeal stories comes this short but sweet movie from Edison Studios. Eschewing miracles and special effects, A Christmas Accident provides a tantalizing glimpse into the holiday celebrations of ordinary, working-class people shortly after the turn of the century.
Prosperous, crotchety old coot Mr. Gilton and his long-suffering wife live right next door to the harmonious Bilton family. After months of enduring their neighbor’s bad temper, the Biltons are settling down for their modest Christmas Eve festivities.
“Santa Claus is poor this year,” says Mr. Bilton, explaining to his children why they’re not getting a turkey. But what to their wondering eyes should appear? Why, Mr. Gilton, blown by a snowstorm right into their home—with a turkey under his arm. Do I smell reconciliation… and stuffing?
The Insects’ Christmas – Vladislav Starevich – 1913
Vladislav Starevich. Now there’s a name even film geeks don’t mention much—but they should. This enthusiastic amateur entomologist produced some of the most creative and elaborate early examples of stop-motion animation.
In his surreal works, anthropomorphic insects often move around in a world like our own. They go to the movies, conduct secret love affairs, and, yes, even celebrate Christmas. Heartwarming or horrifying? I’ll let you be the judge.
Bonus film: for more unusual holiday entertainment courtesy of our friend Vladislav, watch his live-action film The Night Before Christmas (1913), based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, not the quaint poem by Clement Clarke Moore.
The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus – Charles M. Seay – 1914
In 1914, comical amateur sleuth Octavius bumbled through a series of short one-reel films produced by Thomas Edison. In the final series installment, our hapless hero shows up at a party to dress as Santa for his friend’s children. Needless to say, holiday mayhem ensues.
No sooner does Octavius don the bushy white beard and red suit then he gets conked on the noggin by a burglar. Dressed up in a different Santa suit, the villain steals the children’s gifts from under the tree and flees with Octavius in hot pursuit.
Of course, all this improbable exposition merely serves as an excuse to show two men in Santa costumes chasing after each other and brawling. Fortunately, as the intertitles tell us, “Octavius never fails.” The detective ends up returning the Christmas presents and gets to canoodle behind a curtain with a pretty girl while some weirdly voyeuristic children watch. (And a merry Christmas to you, too, Mr. Edison…)
Though clearly filmed on a set, this movie tenderly documents the customs of a middle class Christmas on the brink of WWI. Plus, it started the Santa suit mix-up plot device that seasonal comedies have been recycling ever since.
Have a very cinephile Christmas, everyone!
Maybe you’ve gotten sick on December gingerbread and need some noirish entertainment to cleanse your palate. Maybe you’re craving a warped, dark, mean movie for any month of the year. In any case, you won’t regret watching Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday—even if it is perhaps the bleakest film ever to include Christmas in the title.
This stunningly perverse crime drama stars Deanna Durbin as a prostitute and Gene Kelly as evil incarnate. Warning: there will be NO singin’ in the rain. Just lots of rain. Its subversive beauty and the wrenchingly effective against-type performances of the two leads will stay will you.
This masochistic little yarn follows the recently commissioned Lieutenant Mason on his holiday furlough. He’s stuck in New Orleans for a torrentially rainy Christmas Eve on the way to San Francisco to confront his girlfriend who recently dumped him… via telegraph—Merry Christmas!
Dragged to a nightclub and (let’s face it) a brothel, our young man happens upon baby-faced torch singer and (again, let’s face it) hooker Jackie who begs him to take her to Midnight Mass where she breaks down sobbing. And a Happy New Year!
Jackie eventually tells the impressionable Mason that her real name is Abigail Manette. She ‘fesses up about her marriage to a charming, well-born gambler and n’er-do-well Robert Mannette who ended up getting sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he definitely did commit.
As she remembers, we see Robert and Abigail’s doomed, codependent romance unfold in a series of non-sequential tangled flashbacks. We also watch Robert’s faded Southern belle mother (Gale Sondergaard, wicked and spooky as ever) deciding to blame Jackie for not saving her baby Robert from himself.
Ignoring enough red flags to communicate the script in semaphore, Jackie persists in her delusional love for her murderous, glib bastard of a husband. She wallows in her guilt and punishes herself by becoming a lady of the night.
If the plot sounds predictable and sentimental, I can tell you it simply isn’t so. This film discards clichés like unsold Christmas trees on December 26th. Take the prostitute-crying-in-a-church cliché, lifted straight from Maupassant’s “La Maison Tellier,” in which a troupe of weeping whores teach a group of peasants about the true meaning of Easter.
Well, guess what? When Durban’s fallen woman starts to noisily heave and weep in her pew, she doesn’t offer a spectacle of redemption and spirituality. She’s an embarrassment. An uncomfortable reminder of the discarded people we want to forget about at merry times—the times when we ought to be remembering them most.
As all the faces turn toward the Lieutenant, her escort, as if to say, “What is the matter with you and your girl?” Jackie crumples on the floor. Lieutenant Mason looks down with pity (not empathy, I’d say) and hides her with his coat. The withering indifference of the whole world strips us of many illusions about the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
Upon the film’s release, the ever-crabby Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed Durbin’s acting, stating that “[she] is merely adequate in her role.” I disagree.
Throughout the film, Durbin’s rendering of the Garbo-Dietrich fallen woman shtick feels askew—but intentionally so. Because of its awkwardness, its unexpectedness, her performance is simply perfect. We’re watching something we’ve come to see as pure—Durbin and her image—being unmercifully sullied. Durbin never abandons the wholesome, radiantly loving vibe that she channelled in all those musicals… which makes the occasional low-life mannerisms that Jackie’s acquired all the more unsettling and jarring.
Rather than giving us a lesson in noirish coolness, Siodmak employs Durbin’s soulful naïveté to superb effect and demystifies the “gallant hooker” and “codependent noir wife” tropes. He refuses to glorify a twisted relationship, a coupling that would degrade any sane person’s idea of love.
The cuts back and forth between the pure, fresh-faced Abigail of the flashbacks to the faux-vamp Jackie of the present make us realize the silliness of her charade. Jackie’s tough babe act only points to the saccharine motive behind her degradation: atoning for not being a good enough wife. She’s internalized every victim-blaming message beaten into her brain until she wholeheartedly accepts her victimization.
Jackie’s masquerade contrasts with that of her husband. Robert Mannette pretends he’s a decent guy with a few flaws, when it’s not hard to recognize a sociopathic sponger.
Bet you never thought Gene Kelly could look this scary.
Since this is based on a story by Somerset Maugham and adapted to screen by Herman J. Mankiewicz (of Citizen Kane acclaim), we get some off-hand discussion of this identity play in the dialogue, too:
Robert: “Which do you like better: the person I pretend to be or—”
Abigail: “The person you are.”
Of course, the problem with this exchange is that Abigail cannot know the real Robert. This astute shyster possesses enough skill to reveal a few of his minor vices so as to insist on his overall transparency. His disguise is a double disguise—because he acts like he’s taken off his mask.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most deceptive publicity shot Hollywood ever produced… and that’s saying something.
Through exploring these rancid guises, Christmas Holiday punctures two sets of Hollywood myths. Classical American cinema tends to perpetuate, in my mind, two main types of fantasy.
1. The normalcy or domesticity myth: “I’m young and perky and will overcome any obstacles to happiness by standing by my man!”
2. The bad-faith noir or tragically hip myth: “I live a bad life because life itself has ruined me for everything else. You wouldn’t want to be me, but you still do, and you know it, because I’m really cool.”
Yes, these are generalizations, but as my math teacher told me, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
Well, Christmas Holiday takes these two clichés and knocks their heads together. First, we see that homey, domestic dramas of redemption don’t work out in reality. Girl, you can’t pull him up. He’ll pull you down.
Second, and more crucially, Siodmak mocks the glamorous despair of film noir’s beautiful and damned denizens. Bordellos, bookie bars, dance halls—they’re not dreamy or desirable. They’re shabby and absurd. Snap out of it! Which is what we long to tell the heroine of this mordant drama.
Gee, how I love my awful momma’s boy murderer of a husband!
Jackie, you see, loves being in love. And not in a good way. She’s addicted to the idea of an eternal, unhealthy, unconditional, self-sacrificing love, a child’s concept of l’amour fou. We feel her swelling girlish visions of passion through grandiose shots of a concert hall where she listens, rapt, to Tristan und Isolde… sitting next to a stranger who she’ll end up marrying. (Warning: do not listen to Wagner before agreeing to go on a date.)
Indeed, two musical motifs dominate Christmas Holiday’s Oscar-nominated score: there’s the majestic, tragic strains of Wagner’s “Liebestod” and then the syrupy repetitions of Irving Berlin’s “Always.” (Now, it’s a great song, and a favorite of mine, but anything is absurd on repeat.) The movie contrasts these two love anthems to suggest that when real people try to live out the “Liebestod,” though, they don’t become sublime Tristans and Isoldes or even tragically hip lost souls. They turn into cornballs and bad jokes.
This film boasts gorgeous chiaroscuro photography by Elwood Bredell, as even my less-than-pristine screenshots show.
I most appreciated the ways in which the noirish flavor of the domestic sphere comes alive. In this noir, the cozy home isn’t the opposite of the dirty city. No, this den of domesticity is just as dirty. Maybe more so. Every place is bad. Some places are just more honest about their badness. Sinister Mrs. Mannette looms in the frame, ogling the newlyweds with malice. Bedposts, windows, bars, and the shadows of windows and bars imprison Jackie/Abigail in almost every scene.
And, by the way, don’t watch this movie if you love Gene Kelly. You will never be able to look at Kelly again without seeing the man who comes home from killing someone and proceeds to make love with his wife as if nothing happened. Or the man who says, “I want a shave. I wanna look pretty when I see my wife again…” even as he plans on murdering her.
Kelly’s spry, lithe physicality suits a vile cad with surprising aplomb and he dives right into the subtle depravity of his character, bringing his wife to a gambling den to teach her all about the things he promises he’ll never do again. As he makes one particularly florid protestation to his fiancée, the sound of unrelated laughter in another part of the bar lets us know, in case there was any doubt, that this man’s promises are worth “two percent of nothing,” to borrow a phrase from Raymond Chandler.
For me, the greatest scene, the one that gave me shivers, occurs at the very end of Christmas Holiday—and involves a serious spoiler. Robert dies in Abigail’s arms after he tries to kill her. Lieutenant Mason, looking on, gently tells her, “You can let go now.” We see Abigail cradling her husband, her childish face contorted in an unbecoming sob.
And then, something magical happens: a cut to a close-up of Deanna Durbin—she suddenly shines, looking grown-up, transfigured, and glamorous, like a cross between Norma Shearer and Garbo. You can see her thoughts click. It’s not my fault. It was never my fault. I couldn’t save him. I shouldn’t have had to save him. I can only save myself. Catharsis. Enlightenment. Whatever you want to call it. It happened in the space of two shots.
Abigail stands and walks to a window. The stunning backlighting makes her glow. Gazing out a window, she sees clouds part, revealing a twinkling starry sky. It sounds corny, but when I watched it, by God, did it ever work on me. The scene delivers an exhilarating sense of liberation, the cinematic equivalent of a deep breath. I’ve read at least one other review that pans this ending, so perhaps it won’t work for you. But I “bought” it, and I am by no means easily sold on anything.
It’s like a fresh start, albeit one with enough ambiguity to avoid total happy-ending bathos. Sincere, but not gushy. After a downward spiral, we, the viewers, are rewarded with beauty. And we learn a little about what beauty means.
Beauty isn’t commitment to a bad man. It’s not abject self-sacrifice. It’s not despair. It’s none of the platitudes or cynicisms that we may blindly accept.
Beauty is freedom. The freedom to let go of things before they kill you—which they usually do in Siodmak’s noir films. And that’s the closest to the true meaning of Christmas that any film noir is going to get.