Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 51
Happy Holidays!
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
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DVD Review

Going to the Heart of the Holiday With Frank Capra, James Stewart, and Jean Arthur

Stuart Mitchner

I’ve been wondering how I would answer this week’s Town Talk question. Without meaning to be difficult, I might say that I don’t have a favorite holiday movie, and anyway what’s a holiday movie? The real question is what movies do you find yourself truly wanting to see when the holiday season comes around? Do you want something light and superficially appropriate that you can check off your list of things to do this time of year, or do you want something closer to the emotional heart of the season?

When I mentioned what I was writing about to a friend, she told me she’d just seen White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street, that she always cries in the same spots, and that she misses watching holiday movies with her kids. Her response shows how limited the word “favorite” is. Emotions are closer to the surface right now for parents who can remember being kids and raising kids and who may find themselves acutely susceptible to moments like the one in Meet Me in St. Louis where Judy Garland turns “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” into a lullaby to sad-faced little Margaret O’Brien.

The Chemistry of Capra

In spite of online lists of favorite holiday pictures that reveal a decided tilt toward recent works tailored for kids and adolescents, the same old chestnuts are pulled out of the closet every year with the lights and the ornaments, including the standbys mentioned above, along with the the various Christmas Carols, and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. I’d seen Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece several times before television programmers in the 1980s fashioned it into a holiday fixture. I never associated Christmas with the story of a small town banker named George Bailey, in spite of the fact that the film ends happily around a Christmas tree. It’s true that the Capra chemistry has a holiday-season, special-occasion component that when driven by James Stewart’s heroic performance makes It’s a Wonderful Life an emotional blockbuster. The same could be said of You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and of the two Capra films starring Gary Cooper, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). Regardless of the time, place, and subject matter, Capra’s movies seem to connect with the spirit of the season more potently than those of any other director.

Though they lose in the end, the Scrooges in Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin’s Dickensian dynamic are rich and ruthless bah-humbug magnates, shysters, and corrupt politicians. In his New Statesman review of You Can’t Take It With You, Graham Greene cites the Dickens standard (“the Christmas Carol all over again,” “in the Christmas Carol tradition”) on his way to describing the essence of Capra’s power. Instead of being sidetracked by “the most embarrassing moments in a film which is frequently embarrassing,” Greene points out the director’s “genius with a camera,” the way that “his screen always seems twice as big as other people’s,” and the fact that “he cuts as brilliantly as Eisenstein.” After summing up the crazy plot reworked from and generally superior to the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart play, Greene articulates the essence of Capra’s holiday appeal: “We may groan and blush as he cuts his way remorselessly through all finer values to the fallible human heart, but infallibly he makes his appeal — to that great soft organ with its unreliable goodness and easy melancholy and baseless optimism.”

One of the neatest role reversals you’ll ever see is the one in which Lionel Barrymore moves from the consummately genial, philosophical, do-your-own-thing grandfather Vanderhof in You Can’t Take It With You to the irredeemably evil Mr. Potter, the apotheosis of heartless villainy in It’s a Wonderful Life. Potter makes Scrooge look like a misguided Santa Claus. He has Satanic dimensions; his evil is a plague; in Capra’s simplistic but deeply convincing moral vision, we accept that had George Bailey taken his own life or had he never been born, Bedford Falls might actually have succumbed to the corrupting influence of Potter and his money.

The Park Bench Scene

There’s a nighttime park bench sequence with Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in You Can’t Take It With You that’s worthy of a place in the Capra hall of fame next to the telephone love scene between Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life. The park is, of course, Central Park, and for the Princeton graduate from Indiana, Pa., it’s the site of his breakthrough moment. When he takes a blade of grass and describes how he and a college friend thought they’d discovered the secret of solar energy (“There’s a tiny little engine in the green of this grass and the green of these trees that has the mysterious power of being able to take energy from the ways of the sun and store it up …”), James Stewart becomes Jimmy Stewart. If you study his delivery, so relaxed, thoughtful, and compellingly natural, you might imagine that he learned something from Will Rogers or maybe Spencer Tracy, but ultimately what you’re witnessing is the birth of a unique persona, a true American idol coming into his own.

And it wouldn’t be possible without just the right lines, just the right director, and just the right actress as his audience, leaning close, aglow in a white gown, breathing in every word, beautifully attentive. The presence of Jean Arthur, who was born in Plattsburgh, New York 110 years ago this October 17, is enough to make you feel a superstitious awe for the medium and for the odd notion of putting a disc into a machine and watching someone who died almost 11 years ago conversing intimately with someone who died 13 years ago, as if to say “Death never happened, this is now, we’re sharing the same reality.” What’s more, Arthur’s character has something special to say in this scene when she refers to her grandfather’s idea that “most people nowadays are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money, and they’re scared to spend it.” His “pet aversion,” she says, is to “the people who commercialize on fear,” who “scare you to death so they can sell you something you don’t need.”

As with Stewart’s reference to solar energy, you have to remind yourself that these things are being said in 1938.

Miss Jones

Though Jean Arthur had been in movies as far back as the early 1920s, she was 36 before her career took off, thanks to Capra, who cast her as the worldly reporter exploiting and eventually saving (and of course falling in love with) Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds. She’s in a similar role helping out Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith, but she’s at her most appealing in Sam Wood’s The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), which complements the holiday theme with its subtle, imaginative reworking of A Christmas Carol.

As Miss Jones, a sales clerk in a department store who’s in love with a labor agitator played with uncharacteristic passion by Robert Cummings, Jean Arthur is a radiant life force, her hair’s longer and darker, her beauty even more humanly touching than it was in You Can’t Take It With You. That the actress playing this youthful, embodiment of right reason is 41 beggars comprehension. For one thing, it’s a physically demanding role, in which at one point she has to fling herself across the top of the department store manager’s desk to grab some incriminating evidence (a list naming politically suspect store employees who would otherwise have lost their jobs). It’s her sweetness, charm, and compassion that more than anything else melts the Scrooge character played by Charles Coburn in what may be the best role of his career. John P. Merrick is one of the richest men in the world, lives in a Park Avenue palace, has never been photographed, and owns the department store in front of which he’s been hung in effigy. The fact that no one knows what he looks like enables him to infiltrate the store work force as a salesman in the shoe department. Like Jimmy Stewart’s munitions magnate father in You Can’t Take It With You, he has a sour stomach, which is eventually cured by a diet of tuna popovers and Coney Island hot dogs. The transformation from a monster (the devil of the title) to a human being is more believably managed than the fantastical transformation of Scrooge in the Christmas Carol movies. Along with the warmth and depth of Coburn’s performance and his ability to walk the line between the comic business and a plot with serious if eventually unrealized sociopolitical ambitions, it’s the dauntless energy and charm of Jean Arthur that makes his change of heart credible. By the end of the film, you can believe that her Miss Jones could have won over even loathsome Mr. Potter. Speaking of transformations, it’s worth noting that the abominable floor walker, the most repellent character in The Devil and Miss Jones, is played by Edmund Gwenn, who seven years later would be wearing a red suit and whiskers in another department store in Miracle on 34th Street.

Solar Power

The image of James Stewart and Jean Arthur (shown here on the verge of a kiss) is from the park bench scene in You Can’t Take It With You, which can be seen on YouTube (“Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur Talking About Solar Power”). Better yet, see them dance the Apple and wreak havoc at a fancy supper club by checking out the movie at the Princeton Public Library, which has DVDs of the films mentioned, with the exception of Meet John Doe and The Devil and Miss Jones.

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