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  • That Other Capra Christmas Movie

    by K. V. Turley

    capra-camera-portrait

    Every one has seen it.

    At least, it seems so at this time of year.

    You can’t avoid seeing that 1946 classic appearing on television.

    Everyone at the office loves it, of course, even those who haven’t seen it. Everyone has their favorite scene, the bits they like to quote. Unexpectedly, some become quite poetic, profound even, when discussing its ending. They—we—can all identify with that bit. So bitter sweet—not a dry eye in the house. Yes, a classic, we are all agreed on that. By now, you know I’m talking about Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Of course, you knew that, it’s everyone’s favorite Christmas movie—right? Wrong. Not mine. I prefer his other, earlier, Christmas movie.

    What?

    At this point, most people stare blankly back—is this guy for real? You are putting us on? Okay—what other film?

    At this point, I had better explain.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, It’s a Wonderful Life is my second favorite Christmas film, and by a mile, but there is another that pips it at the post, if only just. But don’t worry, even though its ending is bleaker, it is still equally, if more strangely, redemptive for all that.

    Wait a minute, though. We are getting ahead of ourselves.

    Let’s start at the beginning. Mr. Frank Russell Capra was born in 1897. An Italian American director, he created a genre all his own, and in so doing won Oscars and audiences on the way. In the 1930s and 40s, Box Offices and critics couldn’t get enough of his films. An original when Cinema was all pretty original. Humorous and insightful, witty and humane, his movies celebrate ‘the little guy’ and the joy of his everyday life—and in case you missed it, that’s most of us. Yes, and he did it all with such style, such charm, such vitality! Never preachy or dull, this was a man you would always have been happy to spend a few hours with, and that’s just what the cinema going public back then did, year in, year out.

    Even when war came, it did not dull the man, or his vision. In a way, it simply sharpened his focus. By 1941, he was making propaganda movies for the American Military. These were rated pretty good as well, and again he won an Oscar. The clouds may have been gathering over Europe and the Pacific; nevertheless, for Frank Capra, it seemed that everyone of them had a silver lining, which makes this ‘one’—you know that ‘other one’ we are talking about—made in the year of Pearl Harbor, all the more intriguing.

    The story? I hate giving away plots, so you will have to look elsewhere for that—50 seconds, or less, online will give you all you need to know. For once, can’t you just trust me?  Okay, look, it’s a story of a nobody, who becomes a somebody, only to discover that he really was a nobody after all and is seen as such by those around him, and all this as the midnight chimes of Christmas night ring out, leaving him with no hope whatsoever—or so it seems. For at that point the Ordinary—or is it the Extraordinary? —kicks in, and we end up with a finish that will leave you sobbing for all the broken dreams that ever sat and looked out over a bleak winter sky—and that includes yours and mine.

    Fear not, even in that darkest of cinematic nights the Dawn comes; just as it has done, and still does, and will again, from now until that unexpected Trumpet blasts, at last bringing It definitively.

    The cast? Well if I say it has some of America’s greatest: a leading man for everyman, as good looking as he was a good actor, with a co-star, as sassy as she was intelligent, as funny as she was characterful. I mean, come on, what do you want, for crying out loud! And all mixed in equal by an expert hand using a well-written recipe. This particular chef knew, as only he could, precisely how to whip that concoction into shape. Soon, you will realize that this is no turkey, but instead a very special Christmas pudding, as nourishing as it is sweet to taste.

    Then there are those monochrome images, with their dark lantern glamour, delivering just the right tone of depth and texture needed so that throughout, in the corner of our eyes, the shadows play with the light, and enough to remind us of something else, something fundamental. That night, far off in time, if mysteriously still close, with its own Light that once led shepherds, and guides us yet, back to dimly lit churches as the clocks once more strike Midnight. Only this time the bells toll not for the character at the end of this movie, but, instead, for all of us.

    You see, in this movie, what you are actually witnessing is prayer, caught on celluloid. Really? Yes, really. You may have heard this story before, but all the same, allow me to repeat it, if for no other reason than I like the telling.

    One day, Frank Capra was walking down the street minding his own business when a random stranger stopped him and said the following: “The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired. God gave you those talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose. And when you don’t use the gifts God blessed you with, you are an offense to God—and to humanity.” Now if someone stopped you and said that, well, to say the least, you might be a little shaken, disturbed even. Capra was; enough to go on and make some of the most joy-filled classics that cinema has ever witnessed. You see the film world of Capra is about the ordinary, but he glimpsed the Extraordinary in it—and knew in his heart exactly where that came from and, more importantly, that it was down to him to play his part in its revelation.

    And what about you, and me? What’s our part this Christmas, and the rest of the year, come to think of it?

    So, okay—go ahead, watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I understand, really, I do. Nevertheless, you may wish to spend a moment thinking over what we’ve been talking about. You see, you could not only be missing out on another great seasonal cinematic treat—at the very least—but, also, on your second favorite Christmas film of all time, or, you never know, perhaps discovering your first.

    Enough!

    Ladies & Gentlemen: for your delectation, we present Mr. Gary Cooper and Miss Barbara Stanwyck in Mr. Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.

    I do hope you enjoy the show…

    Editor’s Note: To watch the trailer, click here; to watch the entire film, click here.

    Meet John Doe

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • lifeknight

      Thank you for the movie info. I had not seen that one and will watch it!

    • Blah Blaah

      Am I the only one who skimmed the article without reading it just to get to the title and get on with it?

      • Aldo Elmnight

        No.

        Movie can be viewed here:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf_CB2RRWzk

        • Crisiseditor

          If you got to the end of the article and read the editor’s note, you would have noticed a link to the film. Needless to say, when you skim you miss things.

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    • Sarah

      A really intriguing article. I am looking forward to watching it. In fact, I think I’ll watch it now! Thanks!

    • Sarah

      I’m so glad I watched this film on your recommendation. It really is much more complex and more probing than “It’s a wonderful life” though it bears the same hallmarks, but it is ‘of the moment ‘in a way that one can’t brush off as a happy fairytale.
      It’s also more specificially Christian, in a way that higlights an aspect of Christ, that I feel Pope Francis is specifically trying to emphasise right now. ie the humility of ordinariness, the power of ordinariness and the beauty of the ordinariness of Christ. The cfilm’s critique of celebrity culture, right there even in 1941 is fascinating to watch unwind. You get a good taste of the culture of spin, that continues and accelerates around us and within us, but there’s also that wonderful moment of realisation that the only way out or at least onward is in following that Ordinary bloke the Son of Man – Whose chosen name emphasised His ordinariness before it announced His Divinity. i found it moving and awakening…Watch it and see if you agree. Thanks Kevin.

      • katherine

        I watched this
        film last night, also, having read the article here in Crisis. Like you, I
        found it fascinating. It is a companion piece to ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’,
        bleaker and more painful, as the author of the article said, because Gary
        Cooper/John Doe is a deracinated character, operating outside a family or
        social life; it is a strange and powerful coup by Capra to transpose Pilate’s
        ‘Ecce Homo’ to the Convention scene and to offer that penetrating critique of
        currents of power – newspapers, politicians, the mob. Yes, you are right: it
        resonates with Pope Francis’ concerns at the moment.

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    • Lee

      I am so glad you wrote about Meet John Doe. It has been a favorite of mine for years. The ending on the top of the tower….everybody talking at him….I love Walter Brennans’ scornful dismissal of people as Helots…the snow, the bells, the drug store worker…all so wonderful…It is my second favorite Christmas story.

    • FrankW

      I haven’t seen Meet John Doe, but will do so now that I’ve read about it in this article. But I am one of those who ranks “It’s a Wonderful Life” if not at, certainly very near, the top of my personal all-time favorite movie list.

      What makes “It’s a Wonderful Life” so good isn’t just the ending, but the fact that George Bailey is truly a complex character. He knows what he wants to do, until he realizes that he is being called to do something else. His resistance to accepting the call to take over his father’s business and take up his father’s mission is not one he is enthusiastic about accepting.

      My favorite part of the movie is the scene where Potter offers George a job, and in doing so, hits George in his weakest spot. Potter’s words (in part) “George Bailey is NOT a common ordinary yokel. He is a smart, intelligent, ambitious young man who hates his job, and who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do.” George’s reaction to this is not to deny Potter’s statement. He simply replies “What’s your point, Mr. Potter?”

      What ensues next is literally George being tempted by the devil himself. George is offered a job that will pay him nearly times his current salary, and make him a very wealthy man. All George has to do is abandon the mission left to him by his father. After realizing that he’s about to bite into the forbidden fruit, he throws it back into Potter’s face and storms out.

      There is no going back for George after this point. Any hope he had of ever being anything but the head of a small-town B&L are finished after this, and he knows it. Yet he refuses the temptation.

      Has there ever been a better movie portrayal of resisting evil when it is tempting its subject as his weakest point? There may be, but I haven’t seen it.

    • smokes

      Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story are my favorites, though the Bells of St. Mary (directed by Leo McCarey for Christmas, 1945) is special, too.

      And to think, Little Christmas is tomorrow.