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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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They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.