Talking of Christmas, as we seem to be doing permanently on this blog, here’s a Christmas staple.
But before that, some Pages from Ceefax.
One story I noticed, about Neil Kinnock wanting to throw out members of Liverpool Militant, the group that Derek Hatton was part of. He’s in the news at the moment because he was recently readmitted into the Labour party.
Then, even though this isn’t a Christmas tape (it’s March) here’s a Christmas staple, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I love this film. It’s presses so many of my buttons it’s ridiculous, and I genuinely cannot watch it without being in tears for much of the time, even near the start.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with it, so I’ll just call out a few of the things I like about it. First, who doesn’t like James Stewart? And my love for him grew ever so slightly when I was digitising a lot of my dad’s old Kodachrome slides, and I realised that when he was a young man, he looked an awful lot like James Stewart. Now he’s older, I keep thinking he looks like David Attenborough, although that’s mostly the white hair. But I don’t idolise my dad, of course not.
And Donna Reed. The moment, in the school gym, at the dance, where Stewart sees her across the room, obviously the first time he’s seen her since she was a little girl (and he a little boy) and her face lights up in surprise. As does his, but he’s a lot more offhand about it.
The strange idea of having a swimming pool under the gym, I wonder if that was a common thing, or if it was just invented for the film.
Lionel Barrymore is perfect as the despotic rich man Mr Potter, who’s desperate to get his hands on the Building and Loan, so he can shut it down and force all the people in town to rent his slums.
I love the episodic way George’s life is shown. We’re shown him at several pivotal moments, but the shared subtext is that it’s all about George’s self sacrifice and taking responsibility, putting aside his dreams to look after everyone else. That kind of theme is catnip to me. “But George, they’ll vote with Potter otherwise”
When George learns his younger brother is married and has a good job offer from his father in law, meaning he won’t want to take over at the Building and Loan so George can go travelling, he goes walking. I love it when he meets Violet, who’s always had a soft spot for him, and she’s happy when he suggests they do something, but when he suggests going walking up by the falls, and swimming in the moonlight, she’s suddenly not keen. She’s not adventurous in that way.
So he ends up back with Mary. It’s a bit strained, as he’s distracted and disappointed by his news, while she tries to remind him of their romantic evening of a few years ago. Their entrepreneur friend Sam Wainright calls – clearly Mary’s mother has her eye on him as a husband for Mary, rather than the far less successful George, and even though George isn’t really interested in Harry’s exhortation to invest in plastics, he still takes the opportunity to suggest Harry build his new factory in one of the unused factories in Bedford Falls, something that’s never mentioned again, but which is clearly another of the ways in which George has helped other people.
Then the phone call ends, and George is still adamant that he doesn’t want plastics, or ground floors, and he definitely doesn’t want to get married, he wants to do what he wants to do and… (I’m crying again, just writing this and finding the screengrabs.)
More time passes, and George and Mary get married, and prepare to head off on their honeymoon, when they see the bank with a crowd of people around it. It’s a run on the bank. This film taught me what a run on the bank was. The Building and Loan also has a crowd, and when George opens up, he finds that the bank has already called in their loan, so they have no cash on hand, and their members are scared and want their money. George tries to reassure them, and explain that their money isn’t sitting in a vault, it’s been invested in people’s houses. George could almost make me believe in capitalism. But when the people demand money, Mary pulls out their honeymoon stash, and they’re able to give their members what small amount of cash they need just for the weekend.
The Baileys welcome another new family into their new house.
There’s a montage to cover the war years, and we come up to the present day, Christmas Eve, as George is looking forward to welcoming his brother Harry home, having just been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in the war, shooting down two planes before they could crash into a transport full of soldiers.
Everything’s looking happy for George, even though the Bank Examiner is in to look at their books, but then his uncle Billy, who’s at the bank to pay in $8,000, can’t help but gloat about his war hero nephew to Mr Potter, and then accidentally gives the envelope of cash to Mr Potter in the newspaper he was reading, without realising it.
As he can’t remember what he could have done with the money, George gets more and more anxious. He gets snappy with his kids, and shouts at their teacher, who let young Zuzu walk home with her coat unbuttoned and catch a cold. For a film that has such a saccharine reputation, it gets to a very dark place here, and it’s another aspect that always gets to me. I can really identify with the man worrying that he can’t look after his family.
He does the only thing he can do, he goes to Mr Potter to ask for a loan. Potter has already found the envelope of cash, and takes the opportunity to exact revenge on George, telling him he’s going to have him arrested for fraud.
Even trying to drown his sorrows at the bar doesn’t help, as the husband of the teacher he shouted at punches him for making his wife cry. It’s the last straw, and he ends up on the bridge out of town, looking down at the water, almost going to end his life, when another man jumps in before him. And naturally, George pulls off his coat and dives in to save the man, because that’s who he is.
The man is Clarence, and he’s a trainee angel. He jumped in to save George from killing himself. He wants to help George, but George tells him “I’m worth more dead than alive”. “I suppose it’d have been better if I’d never been born” he says, and we reach the film’s core conceit, as Clarence is able to show George what the world would be like if he’d never been born.
This aspect of the film reminds me of later time travel stories. Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, when stepping on a butterfly in prehistoric times means the present world becomes a nastier, more fascistic place. Even Back to the Future Part 2, when Biff gets the Almanac and becomes the most powerful man in Hill Valley. This film shows the effects so clearly and starkly. The bar is no longer welcoming, run by the Italian Mr Martini, it’s now a dive bar for heavy drinkers. And Old Mr Gower, the town pharmacist, is now an old drunk, because George wasn’t there as a boy to stop him accidentally poisoning someone when he was grief stricken at the death of his own son.
It’s not even called Bedford Falls any more.
Even his mother doesn’t recognise him.
When he goes to Bailey Park to find Martini, the last person he spoke to before this started happening, he finds it’s still the old cemetery, and finds the most shocking thing, the grave of his brother, who died falling through ice when he was 8, because George wasn’t there to save him. “That’s a lie, Harry Bailey went to war. He saved the lives of every man on that transport.” “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry.”
The final shock is meeting Mary, who, in the absence of George, never married. I get why the film went this way, but it’s the only part I don’t really like. But it tracks with the story of George’s importance to people.
George ends up back on the road bridge, but this time he wants to live. “Let me live again” he asks, and with that, the snow starts falling again, and the policeman, who had just been chasing him because he’d frightened Mary and made a scene in a bar, is now looking for him because everyone is worried about him.
He’s overjoyed, running back into town to see it all back the way it should be. “Merry Christmas Movie House, Merry Christmas Emporium.”
He gets back home to find the bank examiner waiting for him, with the sheriff. “Isn’t it wonderful, I’m going to jail.” And his kids are there. By this time I’m basically a wet puddle on the floor for the remainder of the movie.
Mary returns, shortly followed by virtually the whole town, as everyone rallys to help George in his time of trouble. Even the sheriff and the Bank Examiner throw in some cash. And George’s rich friend Sam Wainright cables that he’s authorised his office to transfer funds up to $25,000 to help George.
Even his brother comes home, having been contacted by Mary. “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
A perfect movie.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 27th March 1986 – 14:30
After this, recording continues, with a trailer for Requiem for a Railway.
Then, the start of an episode of The Paper Chase. I remember this being on, but I’m not sure I saw much more than a single episode. It’s always interesting to see the cast in shows like this. In this one, there’s Michael Tucci from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
And here’s a face from another Garry Shandling show, The Larry Sanders Show, Penny Johnson Jerald (here as Penny Johnson).
I have to say, watching what there is of this episode, I’m not massively impressed. The story is about the conflict between the engineering students and the law students, and every character seems to be the biggest cliche imaginable, the dialogue’s fairly bad, and the performances aren’t much better. It’s very strange, given that other dramas of the same era can be really good, this seems shockingly bad. It’s like they’re trying to do Revenge of the Nerds.
The tape ends during this episode.