December 27, 2017

The Bells Are Ringing: Christmas With Jimmy Stewart and Joe the Princeton Postman

By Stuart Mitchner

Some years before Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) became as cherished a Christmas tradition as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, film-buff friends of mine smirked when I dared to suggest that it was a great movie. Admittedly, it beggared belief that anyone could be as noble as James Stewart’s good banker George Bailey or as evil as Lionel Barrymore’s bad banker Mr. Potter. What really made the cynics sneer was that the whole enterprise depended on a tipsy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who offers homilies like “Each man’s life touches so many other lives” as he gives a suicidal George Bailey a tour of Pottersville, the mean-spirited, lawless nightmare his town Bedford Falls would have become had he never existed.

What counts at the moment is that here in the town where James Stewart went to college and began becoming an actor, It’s a Wonderful Life played to full houses at the Garden twice this month.

Jimmy Stewart’s Passion

Making my case to the nonbelievers, I mentioned how brilliantly shot and edited Capra’s film is, how he manages to fill every frame with life, and how James Agee overcame his own cynicism in a December 28, 1946 review by noting that in “its pile-driving emotional exuberance,” the picture “outrages, insults, or at least accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind.” Agee recommends the film “nevertheless,” promising to review it “at length as soon as the paralyzing joys of the season permit.” Unfortunately, the follow-up notice either was never written or was omitted from the Library of America’s edition of Agee’s film writing.

Agee’s characteristically stylish notice conveys in a few words the sheer power of It’s a Wonderful Life, much of it due to the passion Jimmy Stewart brings to the role of George Bailey in one of the greatest performances in American cinema. One moonlit moment that comes to mind is when after a high school dance George asks his future wife (Donna Reed) “What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down!” And when Mary says she’ll take it, he says, “Well, then, you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see, and the moonbeams’ll shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair!”

I doubt that any other American actor could make those lines soar the way Stewart does, and they follow his no less “emotionally exuberant” pouring forth of a dream that never comes true: “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world! Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum! Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things! I’m gonna build airfields! I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high! I’m gonna build bridges a mile long!”

The passion Jimmy Stewart brings to these speeches he was born to deliver makes the immensity of his despair all the more moving when he loses his faith in himself and “the crummy little town” for which he gave up his dream.

Lives Touching Lives

For Stewart, the line about going back to college, though he was 38 when he said it, would mean, of course, Princeton, from which he graduated in 1932. Five years after we moved here, my wife and I and our little boy saw him towering above his 50th reunion classmates in the P-rade. We’ve lived in Princeton for the better part of four decades now, which may be why thoughts of the good-neighbor ambiance of Capra’s Bedford Falls and all the feel-good associations of the season of packages on doorsteps have me remembering Joe Cicogne, the postman we got to know when we lived on Patton Avenue. Joe was the guy Frank Capra could easily have imagined delivering the mail in Bedford Falls. He enhanced our lives by being amiable, cheerful, and thoughtful, with a sense of humor that gave him special rapport with our then-two-year-old son.

My impression of Joe influenced the character of a bus driver, also named Joe, in the novel I began writing after we moved to a garage apartment on Hodge Road. In my fictional New Jersey city, which was darkly closer to New Brunswick than Bedford Falls, Joe the bus driver follows the mailman’s credo about “the completion of his appointed rounds” through snow, rain, and especially gloom of night. Having recently survived open-heart surgery, this Joe conceived of his route in the spirit of the inspirational grafitti spray painted on the side of his bus, We All Shine On, a line from John Lennon’s song “Instant Karma” that evoked for me Capra’s vision of “lives touching lives.” To Joe, every bump, every pot-hole might be his last, but he’s always ready “to go the extra mile,” his route a daily crusade, his greatest fear that Jersey Transport will put an end to it when a new bypass is built. Joe’s mantra is “This bus is never empty! Even on the graveyard run! My route’s like the lifeline of the city!”

Lord Buckley in Kingston

A year ago my favorite postal employee next to Joe sent me a card about jazz legend Lord Buckley in case I had “somehow missed experiencing him” and his monologue “Scrooge,” a hipster-inflected version of Dickens’s tale. The reason Kingston’s Tari surpasses even Joe in my estimation (he retired years ago and last I heard had a table at the Lambertville flea market) isn’t because she reads my column but because back in 2003 when I was at the Kingston P.O. to send something to the jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, she enthused about having seen him play once in Princeton. How many postal clerks in the universe have heard of Clark Terry, let alone having seen him in concert? For that matter, how many P.O. branches have a poetry-writing postmaster like Richard Micallef?

Though I’d heard of Lord Buckley because of his take on the true subject of Christmas in “The Nazz,” I didn’t know much else, including the fact that he was white, “a hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels,” according to Bob Dylan. It took only a few clicks to find the full text of his “Scrooge” online. Instead of going to YouTube to hear Lord B. himself do it, I found myself compelled to try it out, and so infectious were the opening lines (“Yes me I’m Scrooge and I got all of Marley’s barley, and I’m the baddest cat in dis world”) that I read the whole thing through, out loud. I could quote any number of gems such as when the ghost of Christmas present shows Scrooge the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner, “this little goose about the size of a beat-up retarded sparrow” everybody’s “ooohin and aahhin over and sayin’ when are we gonna spread it.” Buckley’s Christmas morning ending is right in line with the joyous ending of It’s a Wonderful Life, “Ding Dong Ding Dong the bells is ringin” and Tiny Tim’s sayin’ “God bless Mr. Scrooge, he done did the turn about. He’s the Lord’s boy today.” That’s the story of Scrooge: “You can get wid it if you want to. There’s only one way straight to the Road of Love.”

Lord Buckley’s bells remind me of the way my cynical friends made merciless fun of Clarence’s claim that the dinging of the cash register in a Pottersville bar signifies the bell that rings in heaven whenever an angel wins his wings. At this moment in time, however, it’s hard not to feel cynical, given the monstrous hypocrisy of a president Scrooge gloating with his self-satisfied congressional allies as they celebrate the passage of a tax bill that panders to the super rich while posing as a bail-out for the rest of us.