Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas with the Baileys

Christmas movies.  I have stated elsewhere my love of A Christmas Carol and it's various permutations, but there is one tradition that I have had that ranks up there with watching a version of that movie.  For years, on Christmas Eve, on one of the national stations, I think NBC, they broadcast It's A Wonderful Life, a classic from 1946.  I make it a point to watch this movie every year.  Sometimes the rest of the family doesn't want to watch it, so I repair to another room and watch it by myself.

Saturday I had the rare opportunity to go and see it on the big screen at a theater in Austin.  Several things, besides getting to watch it in a movie theater, made this experience memorable.  For one thing, a very old theater in downtown Austin, the Ritz, was the venue.  This is an old-fashioned theater that originally opened in 1929.  It had a run for about 40 years as a movie theater, playing mostly Westerns according to wikipedia,  and then spent a second life as a music venue.  About 10 years ago it was bought and reopened as one of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters.  It only has two screens and the feel of the place is reminiscent of the kind of theaters that were prevalent when I was a kid, although the seats have been upgraded to more comfortable style.  But it still feels like those theaters of old.  Had to enter the theater itself by going upstairs.  That reminded me of when I used to go to movies at the Rialto back home.

Second, prior to the movie, one of the employees came out on a stage that still remains from the music venue days, and regaled us with about a 10 minute historical introduction, including both Frank Capra's and Jimmy Stewart's stints in the military during WWII, and the aftermath in Hollywood.  Most of it I already knew,but it was still entertaining.

The last thing, a rarity these days (but I have read it was sometimes common in movie viewings in the old days), after the movie was over the theater erupted in applause.

It's A Wonderful Life did a decent showing at the theater, although it only barely made back the cost of production. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, but lost out on all of them, most of them to competition from The Best Years of Our Lives.  But I'd hazard a guess that more people have seen It's A Wonderful Life than have seen that other classic.

It's A Wonderful Life (!946):

Things are not all roses and chocolate on Christmas Eve.  Everyone in the town of Bedford Falls is praying for one man, George Bailey.  It seems he may be on the verge of doing something rash.  Rash, indeed.  We see several stars in the sky light up as an angel named Joseph (voiced by Joseph Granby) confers with a senior angel (voiced by Moroni Olsen) about Bailey.  It seems that Bailey is on the brink of committing suicide.  The two call on an apprentice angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) and educate him on the life of Bailey up to that point, which is what the bulk of the movie is about.

George Bailey, starting out at a young age (played by Bobby Anderson), has had an impact on people in his life.  First, he saves his younger brother (played by George Nokes) from drowning in a frozen pond.  Some months later he helps his boss, the druggist Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner) from committing a grievous error by giving a local family poison instead of medicine.  (Gower has gotten drunk because he has just received word by telegram that his son has died, so he made the mistake honestly if not acceptably).

And we also find that Mary Hatch (played by Jean Gale) has a crush on George and swears that she will love him to the day she dies.  (Of course, she whispers this in his bum ear which had been affected by the dip in the frozen pond to save his kid brother.)

Several years later, after George grows up, his kid brother is graduating high school and George is making plans to tour Europe before heading off to college.  See he had waited four years in order to save the money and all his high school mates have already been.  (Which makes him, roughly, 21 in his first scene as an adult and if you can accept a 40 something actor playing a 20 year old young man, you are a better dreamer than I am, but that's really the only downside to the movie.)

Unfortunately George's plans are derailed when his father dies of a heart attack and George is corralled into running his father's Building and Loan Company.  See, "Old Man" Potter (Lionel Barrymore) wants to dissolve the Building and Loan because it represents a hedgerow that he can't tear down in his drive to own the whole town.  Potter is that bugaboo of old time-y movies, the rich miser who would probably have been good friends with Ebenezer Scrooge.  (Then again, they may have been mortal enemies since both wanted to have complete control of the resources.)

George gives the money to his brother Harry, expecting that when Harry returns home from college, Harry will take over as executive at the Building and Loan so George can finally go off to college.  Fate sticks her little fingers in the pie once again, as Harry has gotten married while away at college (and he didn't invite the family...???).  And Harry's new father-in-law wants Harry to go to work for him.

But things aren't entirely bleak.  George finally succumbs to the love bug and marries Mary (Donna Reed).  But just as they are about to leave on honeymoon, there is a run on the bank and George ends up doling out his entire nest egg of honeymoon money to keep the Building and Loan from being closed.

As you can guess, just when things start to look up for George, every time Fate pulls the rug out from under his feet.  The final straw happens in the latter third of the movie, when George's Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) accidentally loses a wad of cash needed to pay for loans the Building and Loan owes.  When it all seems bleak, George finally snaps and considers committing suicide.  At which point Clarence shows up in the flesh to prevent the bad decision.

When George laments that everything would be better if he had never been born, Clarence uses the idea to show him just what life would have been like for everybody else if he hadn't existed.  OK, even if you haven't seen the movie, you most likely have seen something of the same sort in any number of TV shows.  It is a recurrent theme, sometimes used for dramatic effect and sometimes for comedic effect.  Just seeing Bedford Falls transformed into a seedy low-rent Las Vegas called "Pottersville" would be enough to transform me, but George has to see it all, including how the lives would have turned out differently for his family, friends, and for Mary.

You don't have to be a psychic to know how it all turns out.  After all this isn't the jaded 2000's that this movie is taking place but the 1940's and good old wholesome happy ending's must ensue.

"No man is a failure who has friends."

Don't miss out on some great character actors playing roles in this movie.  Early in the scene at Harry's high school graduation, Carl Switzer ("Alfalfa" from Little Rascals)  shows up and pulls a rather mischievous stunt on George and Mary.  Frank Fenton, a frequent face in many western movies and TV shows has a scene.  And, OMG, isn't that a very young looking Grandma Walton during the bank run?  Yes, it is Ellen Corby, who told John-Boy "good night" every week for years on "The Waltons".

I leave you with the following: Just a few of what I consider the more fascinating tidbits from an article published on the Mental Floss website about the movie:  Originally the movie was going to star Cary Grant, but as usual with Hollywood things got a bit convoluted and when the rights were sold to Frank Capra he decided he wanted Stewart in the headlining role.  It was Donna Reed's first starring role, although she had been in several movies before this it was her first role as a headliner. The movie was actually shot in the summer.  All that snow is very, very fake.  (and I bet those actors were sweating like pigs under all those heavy clothes, in fact I think in some scenes Jimmy Stewart actually IS sweating...)  And finally, there is no relation to the fact that Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver have the  same names as two characters on Sesame Street.

Time to fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  I'll try not to hit any generations old trees.  Drive safely folks.



  1. I take nothing away from Stewart's exemplary performance as George Bailey, but I think the secret to Capra's success was his casting of the character actors in his films. In this case, Bedford Falls becomes real to us.

    I'm so pleased to hear about your wonderful movie theatre experience with this classic. A real Christmas treat.

    1. Many of the sub-star actors would qualify for one of those What a Character blogathons. Thomas Mitchell in particular. Thanks for reading.

  2. Hurrah for the Alamo Drafthouse chain making movies like this available for us to see even though we don't live in really big cities or in California! So glad you got this experience.

    Also, that sounds like a way cool theater. The one we have nearish us is brand-new. I'd like one with history so much better.

    1. I envy the conceit that Austin isn't a "really big" city....:-D (It's estimated that it has close to a million right now). Of course, New Braunfels has an Alamo Drafthouse, too and it is under 100,000. As far as the Ritz, well, just one more reason for you to get down here and visit. Austin has so much to offer. (San Marcos, not so much, but it's a nice place for kids.) Thanks for reading.

    2. Lol! I missed the part where you saw this in Austin. But... you don't LIVE in the big city, still, you just drove to it. I live in a medium city, I think? 54K -- is that medium? (Of course, the DC Metropolitan Area has 6 million people, so even though I'm outside the beltway, it feels like I just live in one gigantic city sprawl thing. But close-ish the edges of it, at least.)

    3. Roughly the same size as San Marcos. Estimates say we are around 60K, although the last census only had 44K. 25 miles from Austin, though. I can do that drive standing on my head.

  3. Hi Quiggy—wonderful article on a film you know is one of my all time favorites, Christmas or otherwise. I too watch it every year. So cool that you got to see it on the big screen this year— I envy you!
    Merry Christmas and best wishes for a great 2019!
    - Chris

    1. I don't know exactly where you are in Florida but I'm sure one of the bigger cities had it. It was all over the place here, although on a limited engagement.


I'm pretty liberal about freedom of speech, but if you try to use this blog to sell something it will be deleted.