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It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 20, 1946)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m not alone. When I was a kid, not a Christmas went by that it wasn’t shown on television multiple times. For many families, it’s required holiday viewing.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t see the film in its entirety until I’d already seen bits and pieces over the years and seen it satirized and referred to in countless TV shows and movies.

My first memory of seeing part of it was on my grandmother’s 13″ black & white TV. The film was almost over, and I had no idea what it was about. George Bailey (James Stewart) is experiencing what life would have been like if he’d never been born. He’s disheveled and looks terrified. Police officer Bert (Ward Bond) and cab driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) watch as he explores the abandoned, ramshackle version of his own home. The scene is full of darkness and shadows. It has the look of a film noir, and I found it scary.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you might think it’s the exact opposite — sappy and sentimental — but that’s not the case. It’s a film full of dark moments, with a sense of desperation that’s always threatening to bubble to the surface. The most famous part of the film — George seeing what life would have been like in Bedford Falls, NY, if he’d never been born — occupies a relatively small amount of the total running time. Most of the film tells the story of an ordinary man who ended up living a very different life than he dreamed he would.

When he was young, George dreamed of going to college, traveling the world, and becoming a titan of industry. His life is an emotional game of tug. He puts off college, stays in Bedford Falls, and even gives away the money he and his wife Mary (Donna Reed) put aside for their honeymoon in order to save the family business, Bailey Building & Loan. George always does the right thing because he’s a decent person, but he’s a real person, too. Each little depredation eats away at him. He loves his wife and four children, but when the evil old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) spirits away $8,000 from his absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George loses hope. It looks as if the family business might not only be ruined, but George might also be headed to prison.

George asks Potter for a loan, and Potter points out that while he needs $8,000, he carries a life insurance policy worth $15,000, which means he’s worth more dead than alive. The desperate George takes this cruel assessment to heart. He heads home, yells at his children, trashes part of the house, and goes out to get good and drunk. After getting punched in the face in the bar, he crashes his car, stumbles to a bridge, and contemplates killing himself. It’s at this point that a frumpy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has “the I.Q. of a rabbit and the faith of a child,” arrives to show him just how much he really is worth.

It’s a Wonderful Life works as well as it does because it earns every one of its emotional moments. Take, for instance, one of the pivotal moments of George Bailey’s boyhood. George (played by the wonderful Bobbie Anderson, later to be known professionally as Robert J. Anderson) has an after-school job in the local pharmacy, and stops old Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from making a fatal mistake. The audience knows that Gower has slipped up not only because he’s drunk, but because he’s distraught following the death of his son. When George returns, having failed to deliver the poisonous “medicine,” Gower beats him savagely. When Gower finally realizes the fatal mistake George has stopped him from making, he breaks down and embraces the boy in an outpouring of emotion.

I really meant to re-watch It’s a Wonderful Life and write a review of it before Christmas. But one thing led to another and I got behind in my movie-watching schedule. I’m glad I didn’t get around to seeing it until now, though. It reminded me just what a great film it is. So many “holiday films” are unwatchable after December 25, but It’s a Wonderful Life was just as engaging and emotionally satisfying in mid-January as it is any other time of the year.

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Without Reservations (May 13, 1946)

Mervyn LeRoy’s Without Reservations is the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that frequently has adjectives like “sparkling” and “breezy” attached to it. It’s also the last film in which John Wayne appeared as one of the leads but did not receive top billing. Claudette Colbert’s star power still shone pretty brightly in 1946.

I thought that LeRoy’s previous film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), was one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen, so I was looking forward to seeing Without Reservations, but found it mediocre. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

In the film, Colbert plays Christopher “Kit” Madden, a sort of socially progressive version of Ayn Rand. Her novel Here Is Tomorrow is a runaway best-seller, and is the one book it seems that everyone in post-war America has read. When the film begins, Kit is arguing with film producer Henry Baldwin (Thurston Hall), who is unable to fulfill his promise to secure Cary Grant for the part of Mark Winston, the protagonist of Here Is Tomorrow. Kit won’t consider making the picture without Cary Grant, and begins drafting a letter while traveling by train that will stop production of the film. Anyone who’s been paying attention, however, will notice that the heroic painting of Mark Winston on the cover of her novel looks an awful lot like John Wayne, and will probably be able to predict what will happen next.

Sure enough, Kit meets two Marine pilots, Rusty Thomas (John Wayne) and Dink Watson (Don DeFore), on the train. As soon as she lays her eyes on Rusty, she realizes he’s perfect for the role of Mark Winston, and immediately begins to rewrite her letter. Since she introduces herself only as “Kit,” and the novel was published under her full name, Dink and Rusty don’t realize that she’s the most popular author in America. When she asks Rusty what he thinks of the novel Here Is Tomorrow he rips into it with abandon. His main complaint seems to be that the romance in the novel is unconvincing. Mark Winston, a progressive with grand plans to remake America, is chased around by a woman, but they can’t make things work because she’s a political reactionary.

In reality, of course, it’s Kit who’s the progressive (Mark Winston is merely her mouthpiece) and Rusty who’s the reactionary. Without Reservations is based on the novel Thanks, God! I’ll Take It From Here, by Jane Allen and Mae Livingston. I haven’t read the novel, but if the film is in any way faithful to its source material, the title comes from a speech Rusty makes about the first men in America. According to Rusty, no amount of political disagreement is enough to keep a man and a woman apart if they’re hot for each other. (Can you sense, yet, where the film might be heading?)

Angry about the grand plan laid out for society in Here Is Tomorrow, Rusty says to Kit, “Have you ever heard of some fellows who first came over to this country? You know what they found? They found a howling wilderness, where summer’s too hot and winter’s freezing. And they also found some unpleasant little characters who painted their faces. Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age? For their crops? For their homes? They did not. They looked at the land and the forest and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids, and their houses. And then they looked up at the sky and they said, ‘Thanks, God. We’ll take it from here.'”

Watching the film in 2010, I found it hard to believe that no one from the Tea Party movement has latched onto this scene and played it on JumboTrons across the country, since its simplistic vision of America’s beginnings and total opposition to the federal government and even the most basic of social programs seem so close to that movement’s weltanshauung. Not to mention that the speech is delivered as only John Wayne can.

There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, and Wayne and Colbert have decent chemistry, even though he’s not that well suited to playing a romantic lead, especially in a comedy. If Without Reservations had kept up the momentum it establishes in its first couple of acts, I would have really liked it. Unfortunately, it goes off the rails and becomes a meandering road movie.

But not before Rusty, Kit, and Dink run afoul of one of the Pullman porters when they stack up the tables in the club car and have Kit “fly a plane” with a stand-up ashtray for a yoke. The drunken Kit eventually falls over, knocking everything to the ground. Like a bunch of goons, they run off, leaving the mess for one of the porters to clean up while they hide in one of the sleeping compartments (see the film’s poster above).

Once on the road, they buy a flashy sports car from its exasperated owner, and it constantly breaks down. They stay with a colorful Mexican family with a hot and spicy daughter named Dolores (Dona Drake) and a fiery patriarch, Señor Ortega (Frank Puglia), who teaches Kit a few things about love, namely how brutal, selfish, and turbulent it is, and should be. “Love and violence walk hand in hand, señorita!” he says.

The strangest thing about Without Reservations is that Colbert and Wayne do not appear in the same scene at any point during the last act of the film. Kit galivants around Hollywood with a series of leading men in an effort to make Rusty jealous, and the viewer is treated to cameos by Cary Grant (playing himself) and Raymond Burr (still young and trim enough to play an up-and-coming leading man named “Paul Gill”). In these sequences it makes sense for Colbert and Wayne to not appear together, since they’re in different physical locations, but when Rusty finally gives in and appears on Kit’s doorstep, we hear him ringing her doorbell and see her run out of her bedroom downstairs to let him in, but the camera pans right and stops and lingers on a shot of her bed as we hear her greet him off screen. Fade to black. It’s about as subtle as a train going into a tunnel.

I know there are legions of people who think Colbert was the epitome of class, beauty, and charm, but I found her unappealing in this film. With her little stick body, hunched shoulders, spastic movements, short hair in a tight perm, and heavy makeup, she looked to me like an eighty-year old woman with a forty-year old face.