It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead-end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real-life figures. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance at the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the makeshift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films, you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise, nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotions like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so-called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small-town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise, the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status, the film was shown on some TV networks in 24-hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those networks as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.

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Vivacious Lady (1938)

Old School

Sex! Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s fascinating to see just how many references to the birds and the bees permeate the seemingly innocent veneer of Vivacious Lady. James Stewart and Ginger Rodgers where dating during the filming and it’s certainly apparent on screen with the levels of sexual tension between the two with these stars never appearing more youthful than they do here. There are many code breaking moments in Vivacious Lady from the opening scene with the exotic dancers in the nightclub and their tail feathers being pushed in Stewart’s face to Stewart breaking into a women’s only apartment block after visiting hours.

It’s clear that the University in the fictional town of Old Sharon is full of students eager to get it on from every other male student wolf whistling Ginger to the large number of couples occupying the boathouse at night. I mean the President of University and Stewart’s father played by Charles Coburn even comes right out and says it, “We are having the usual spring difficulties between our male and female students a little early this season. Too much fraternising in the lockers”.  – The Hays Code? What code?

However on closer examination of Vivacious Lady something dawned on me – there’s a very unusual incest thing going on between the main characters. Francey (Ginger Rogers) was going out with Peter’s (James Stewart) brother Keith (James Ellison) before they met, however, Francey marries Peter shortly after they meet for the first time even though she was still going out with Keith at the time. Even when Keith finds out he is perfectly ok with this arrangement and himself and Francey continue to act in an overly intimate manner throughout the film for people who are cousins. Likewise just get look at this dialogue exchange:

“I remember I married you”

“Oh no, she married me”

“So were cousins”

“You and your cousins can use that drawing room now.”

Incest aside, unlike other screwball comedies Vivacious Lady is actually more grounded in reality with its use of more deadpan humour. There are no over the top misunderstandings or histrionics (not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of thing) but rather the characters react in a manner in which people would in real life. Just look at the reaction of Peter’s father whenever he tells him he got married, it’s lifelike but manages to be no less funny. This was one of the four films in which Beulah Bondi played Jimmy Stewart’s mother; I can’t imagine a more convincing choice to be the mother of the on-screen, boy next door Jimmy Stewart persona. Likewise, is there a better choice to play an overly conservative father than Charles Coburn? I can speak for a friend of mine who couldn’t believe just how much he related to Jimmy Stewart and the manner he acts towards Ginger Rogers such as Stewart’s attempts to make advances but keeps backing away under nerves. The two of them really do feel like a bunch of young love-struck kids.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If anyone asks me why James Stewart is my favourite actor I just say watch the final scene of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The final scene of this movie is simply of the greatest things I have ever witnessed in any film ever. That may sound like a hyperbole but I’ll never forget the very exact feeling of goosebumps I had when first watching it. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of a small handful of films I would call life-changing, one of the films which helped to mold the way I think and ultimately turn me into the person I am today. It encouraged me to be more skeptical, not to believe everything you here and stand for what you believe despite great opposition. It’s thanks to films like these why cinema is my bible. As much however as Capra is criticised for his films being overly idealist, Mr Smith Goes to Washington does not exactly paint the most glowing picture of the American political system. To quote Thomas Paine (Claude Raines), “The duty of a true patriot is to protect his country from its government”.

One of my favourite scenes in Mr Smith is that in which Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) attempt to explain to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) the entire procedure of creating a bill and submitting it to Congress. For starters, the scene is incredibly funny with the comedic timing and Stewart’s childlike reactions. Secondly, it’s a very informative civics lesson and thirdly, this scene shows us how Jefferson Smith acts of the film’s ambassador the for the average Joe watching film who’s just as confounded by Sauder’s lecture as Smith is. The scene lays out in an entertaining manner the political hoo-ha for the politically lay; my knowledge on politics was very limited when I first watched Mr Smith Goes to Washington but that wasn’t a barrier to being engrossed in the film’s state of affairs.

This is as good an opportunity as any to raise the question, why is Jean Arthur such a forgotten actress? Despite working with several big-name directors, co-starring with famous actors and appearing in a number of beloved classics, her presence is incredibly overlooked as the definitive urbanite career woman with her wit, warmth, and innocence. Also, that voice! Her role as Saunders is the opposite of Mr Smith. She is cynical, jaded and knows the ins and outs of the system with its corruption and cronyism. It takes Smith, the Americaphille who appears to know more about American history than the people working in Washington to restore faith in her with his childlike optimism and perseverance.

Along with the attack on the American political system, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is just as harsh with its portrayal of the press as a pack of ravenous vultures. The scene in which Smith confronts the reporters in a bar is truly shocking as they flat up tell him about their lack of journalistic ethics as reality hits Smith like a ton of bricks (also among the crowd of reporters if Jack Carson, always a scene-stealer). I just have to question the morals on the part of Smith prior to this scene in which he literally goes around punching reporters in the face although it could be argued this was more of a social norm back then between men.

Another striking monologue is that in which Smith’s mentor Thomas Paine justifies corruption as a comprise in order to achieve good deeds, a process which has existed since the birth democracy as he puts it. As convincing as he might sound at first, through the course of the film you can tell he’s a man who knows he’s sold out on is ideals partially from the complete look of shame which bestows Claude Rains’ face. Even at the beginning of the film just look at the reaction of Paine’s face when Smith declares “Dad used to tell me Joe Paine was the finest man there ever was”.

The relationship between Paine and the business mogul James Taylor (Edward Arnold) is like that of The Emperor and Darth Vader. Taylor hovers above Paine only for his conscious to be put to the ultimate test by the end of the film. Taylor’s ability to control the media of Smith’s home state and preventing any of his words from the Senate reaching the state is frightening. I can just be glad that in the age of the internet and mass communication that such control of the narrative isn’t as easy as it once was.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington is very snappy and faced paced; with the culmination of some of Hollywood’s finest character, acting talent helps carry the exposition in an entertaining and at times screwball like manner. The final 30 minutes of the film in which Smith filibusters is one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid with its immense hair-raising build up to an exhausted, out of breath James Stewart declaring that he will fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these!

Like other political films to arise from classic Hollywood, no party is mentioned during the film nor do we know what state Smith is from and which he fights so hard for. Those on the modern right could see Mr Smith as a little guy standing up against big government and the Washington elites. By contrast, those on the left can view Smith as a rebel fighting against corporate, capitalist fat cats like James Taylor. Independents could see Smith as someone who stood alone without backing from any party to fight for his beliefs. Like many of Capra’s films, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is hard to place on the political spectrum. Anyone can see what they want to within the film which is part of its enduring power.  Really, if I ever met someone in elected office, I will be asking them if they have seen this film. Mr Capra and Mr Stewart, thank you for this film.

The Moons Our Home (1936)

The Whole of the Moon

The Moons Our Home is one of my favourite super obscure films with only 139 users ratings on IMDB as of writing this review and a proclamation from Bill Murray as one of his favourite films (look up his appearance on the Siskel and Ebert Holiday Gift Guide 1988 in which he mentions he would like a video cassette of the film for Christmas). The Moons Our Home has only recently seen its due on DVD on the Universal Vault Series although when I watched the film I had to access it through a torrent. Not the greatest image quality but as a big fan Margaret Sullavan and a Henry Fonda enthusiast I was overjoyed to get a hold of the film and was not let down in the slightest.

What surprised me about Margaret Sullavan’s performance as movie star Cherry Chester (real name Sarah Brown) is how much she reminded me of Jean Harlow, always changing mood within a split second. Sullavan and Harlow are two actresses I didn’t think I would ever compare so it’s fascinating to see this aspect of her screen persona I didn’t even know existed. Right from the beginning of the film Cherry Chester is screaming, throwing tantrums and acting like an all-round pretentious drama queen. There is even a Hepburn-esque quality to her character with her fierce desire to be independent as well as clothing choices of a turtleneck and trousers.

Henry Fonda’s role as the explorer Antony Amberton is very much the same as we are introduced to his character escaping from a group of screaming fans which he compares to his daring exploits from the jungles of Africa to the peak of Mount Everest like a male Greta Garbo. Also, notice how all his fans are giddy women, yeah I don’t think he’s exactly Roald Amundsen. Sullavan and Fonda had previously been married, making their pairing feel more tender and genuine with moments like their histrionics in the snow being as adorable as they are funny. The Moon’s Our Home also features innovative use of split screen in which Sullavan and Fonda are given half of the screen to represent different rooms in which they move in parallel and symmetrical tandem.

The other aspect which so effectively carries The Moon’s Our Home is all the great character actor moments with the likes of Beulah Bondi, Margaret Hamilton, and Walter Brennan as the hard of hearing justice of the peace; a brief but very funny role. However, I think the best of these moments involves Charles Butterworth as Horace, the man who is chosen by Cherry/Sarah’s grandmother as her arranged husband. This is despite in his many unsuccessful marriage proposals to different women. Listen to how mundanely and awkwardly he describes how he will “lift her off her feet” while being distracted by a game of solitaire. The Moon’s Our Home is full of moments like this which are funny on different levels.

It’s already a joy to discover a film I love, even more so when it’s a film that almost no one else will watch in a million years. It gives me the sense that it’s my movie. I guess this is what hipsters must feel like listening to bands no one else has heard off.