Posted by Moira Finnie on December 23, 2009
Noel Coward pointed out a long time ago that it was “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think that most of us have felt the same bittersweet pull of moments in popular films as well, even if we think we know better or believe we might be too jaded or sophisticated to acknowledge their power. While reading the heartfelt blog posted here by High Hurdler, I was admiring his economy of emotion and touching description of the unexpected impact of the minor motion picture Michael (1996-Nora Ephron) on him some years ago. As I read that piece, a light came on in that ramshackle house called my memory once more. Transported back to other Decembers over 25 years ago, a door opened on experiences similar to the one explored by my fellow Morlock.
The older I grow, the more poignant and meaningful Christmas becomes. It’s much less about what presents are found under the tree, and more about the reverberations of memory in the present and a realization that small gestures today will have a ripple effect sometime in the future, regardless of my awareness of their lasting significance. Each year at Christmas the past keeps intruding on the present, whether I like it or not. The fact that people who meant so much to me are no longer there physically is part of this, but they are present in my consciousness, as I suspect they are for each of us. The sharp ache that once came at the thought of a person I loved has softened a bit, replaced by an often humorous memory such as a characteristic phrase or gesture. I can see my mother or father or other beloved friend or relative in my mind’s eye, hear their tone in my own words, and sometimes find myself brought up short amid a shopping expedition. There, on some store shelf is a scarf or sweater, book or knick-knack that would have been perfect for her or him.The physical absence of individuals who were loved and taught me to love has not meant that they are truly gone, even among those younger family members who never knew them. Over the holidays, I’ll catch an echo of my father’s thoughtful, soft spoken manner in the voice of his young grandson just entering manhood. My mother’s young granddaughter will arch an eyebrow in just the same provocatively playful way without ever having seen Mom’s same blend of gaiety and insouciance in person. My brother and sisters will join with me in laughing once again over the time the Christmas turkey was roasted upside down, (Mom brought a great deal to the party, but she was not domestic by nature) or the number of times mounting the Christmas tree in its ancient stand led to disasters, fights, and the eventual realization that it doesn’t really matter if the trunk is crooked or that one side of the evergreen was pretty sparse. Along with these memories and realizations, certain movies, most of which I can’t watch anymore without thinking of my parents, (seen at the right in their engagement picture), evoke long-lasting memories as I observe Christmas past, present and future in my own life.
My mother may be single-handedly responsible for a lifelong addiction to older films. Encouraging me while very young to see such movies as Ronald Colman’s Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1935-Jack Conway), discussing the ethical dilemmas presented by The Ox-Bow Incident (1943-William Wellman), and Inherit the Wind (1960-Stanley Kramer) rather than the usual Disney fare, I was never sure why my mother insisted on taking me to see To Kill a Mockingbird (1962-Robert Mulligan) the December of its release. My sophisticated Mom wasn’t given to such frivolous gestures, (though she did have a weakness for just about anything with Gary Cooper). How and why did Mom find time to take me to this film? The mother of four, a woman with a full time job at a time when most women stayed home, and an active interest in the arts and politics, I’ve never been sure what prompted her to take me, her youngest daughter, to this movie. While I knew she loved me, she belonged to the adult world of book discussions, cocktail parties and career much more than my small worldview. I’d always suspected that she regarded my tomboy nature and abiding interests in tree houses, dogs, horses, The Three Stooges and Bullwinkle with varying degrees of intellectual disdain.
The occasion that marked my attendance at this movie may also have stood out because of the unusual amount of time alone with Mom that day. That day included going to lunch at a tea room for the first time, a trip to the book store, and sitting in the balcony at the movie house. I was younger than Scout (Mary Badham) and much of the storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird mainly concerned with the trial of a black man (Brock Peters) for the alleged rape of a young white woman, was far over my head. I could share the young girl and her brother Jem and friend Dill’s fascination with her mysterious reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his screen debut), as well as her struggle to understand her father’s quiet courage as a lawyer, though the intersection of the storylines had an enormous impact on my childhood awareness of the world’s mysteries and injustices. Harper Lee‘s narrator remarks that “Somehow, it was hotter then.” It was also somehow a time when life lessons could be found in a few precious minutes with a parent at a movie. Only years later, after reading the book of To Kill a Mockingbird and seeing the movie again could I see that my mother may have sensed some connection between my own worrisome dreamy nature and that of Scout’s growing awareness of the wider world. Little did I know that she was arming me for life as well.
In my father’s case, he was a man who seemed to have no interest in movies. My one memorable experience of attending a movie with him consisted of an occasion when he’d somehow been convinced to take his four kids to a special holiday revival showing of the classic French children’s film, The Red Balloon (1956-Albert Lamorisse) just days before Christmas. Understandably tired, Dad was working an average of sixty hours a week running his own family business, but I suspect that this may have been one of those times when my mother needed a break from us, and a good chunk of time to wrap and squirrel away our Christmas presents, (especially important, since some of us were inveterate sneak peekers prior to Santa’s arrival). After getting his fidgeting offspring settled down with our popcorn at the beginning of the movie, he occupied the aisle seat and, after about 30 minutes of the enchanting movie was accompanied by reverberating snores from my father, who couldn’t fight off Morpheus in the cozy darkness of the movie theater. Soon, as we sank deeper into our seats with embarrassment, the manager of the theater felt compelled to trot down the aisle with an air of aggrieved officiousness and began nudging Dad awake, urging him to “sleep it off” somewhere else, like home. With a bear-like harrumph my father scooped us up and made his exit with the four of us in tow craning our necks to see the end of the story of the lonely little boy and his anthropomorphic balloon. Fortunately, the movie was only 35 minutes long, so I do remember seeing the affecting ending of the story just as we left the darkened theater for the bright atmosphere of the street, never to return, at least not with Dad.
Years later, I was away at school when the call I’d been expecting came. My Dad had passed away after a long illness. Driving hours to get home to my mother, brother and sisters and feel nearer to him, (and less “guilty” about not being there–though I was pursuing something he wanted for me), it was nighttime by the hour of arrival. Not able to sleep that night “we kids” gathered around the tv around two a.m. There, for the first time, I saw It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
If you are like millions of other people, you’ve seen this movie about five times more than I have. Introduced to this often over-played film when it was still in the public domain, I had heard of it, but was not prepared for the impact on our collective consciousness that night. Bracing myself for a dose of “Capra-corn”, the darker themes that were laced through the warmhearted fantasy or that unlikely ending woven by seasoned screenwriters Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling from Philip Van Doren Stern‘s story for Capra‘s film were deeply moving.
James Stewart‘s profoundly felt performance as the flawed, irritable and resentful George Bailey, whose role encompassed rage and terrible fear may be this actor’s most ‘naked’ part, marking his return from the Second World War as a man and an actor of extraordinary depth. Faced with a contrived mistake that leads his character to feel criminally responsible for a shortfall in his family savings and loan, Stewart‘s story mirrored many of the Depression era dreams deferred and tucked away, of choices made that can’t be changed, or that nagging thought that life without you might not be so bad. While the contentious relationship between the Bailey Savings and Loan and Mr. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore in full Snidely Whiplash mode) seemed far too simplistic, on another level, the film went beyond many of Frank Capra‘s earlier fables about our society. Both Samuel S. Hinds‘ character of Pa Bailey and James Stewart‘s portrayal of the often doubtful yet dutiful son, husband and father might be reflections of my own father’s life and perhaps many other lives. In It’s a Wonderful Life, there is the fanciful ending and wishful thinking of Hollywood at work, but there is also an acknowledgment of the continuing existence of a chaotic world where small boys can easily die in a moment, where children are taken away by war, where parents are lost in grief, a family home is turned into a cold boarding house, and where rage and despair are understandable reactions to life’s basic injustices. It also managed to focus a light on an intangible longing at the root of the American dream, as well as the realization that the presence of one human being might affect the whole fragile cobweb that holds a community together.
Samuel Hinds, a lawyer who became an actor after he’d lost everything in the Crash of ’29, played Pa Bailey quietly and off-handedly, comments early in the film that he feels “that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.” Watching this, I was reminded a dozen times of my father, a man whose education and opportunities in life might readily have prepared him for money and stature. Instead, after graduating from law school in the depths of the Great Depression, he found himself only able to find a job evicting people from their homes. He lasted one month at that soul-crushing job. From then on, he chose work in peace and war that enabled him to pursue his own idealistic hopes for the world, even as he struggled at times to raise a family in a world undergoing massive changes, some for the better, some for the worse. What kept him going, I often wondered? “Believing”, as he told me in a rare moment of candor, “that there must be some ultimate justice in the universe” and that the idea paraphrased from Edmund Burke might be right: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
My simple words may be a bit inadequate to thank two people who have enriched my life and many other lives in ways that they could never know, so I’ll paraphrase something that George Bailey might say: “Mom, Pop, you want a shock? I think you’re great guys.”
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