Blagg: Christmas on the silver screen
At this time of the year, some Christmas favorites begin to show up on television — Charles Dicken s’ “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart, and “Miracle on 34th Street,” with a 9-year-old Natalie Wood.
They’re fun movies to watch (part of the fun with “A Christmas Carol” is deciding which version to see — they range from the black and white classic of 1951 with Alastair Sim to animated knockoffs) and sitting down as a family to watch one of them, complete with popcorn and a running commentary, helps make the season real.
But because they’re so familiar, the lines so easy to mimic, the message behind these old favorites can easily be lost.
Consider Dickens’ character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens was not only an entertainer who wrote serials for magazines to make a living — he was also a social reformer, a gadfly, a moralizing novelist who used his stories to remind his Victorian audience of how bad things had gotten for the less-well-off members of society.
As the Industrial Revolution increased the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Great Britain, Dickens was there to rub his readers’ faces in the unfairness of that divide.
Scrooge had lost his humanity in the pursuit of wealth and it took three appearances by dreadful apparitions to shake him out of his contempt for the poor and remind him of how briefly we are on this planet and how little our possessions will mean once we’re dead and in the ground.
It’s a story with a good ending — Scrooge still has time to make amends and rejoin the human race, but it was too late for his partner Jacob Marley, doomed to forever wander the Earth dragging his chain of ledgers, wailing and lamenting his decision to chases riches rather than love.
And what about “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a nice young man who, despite his yearning to travel and work on big projects, finds himself chained to a savings & loan association started by his father.
Again, this is such a familiar story that one of the keys to the plot — the savings & loan itself — gets lost. In the 1940s, when the story is set, the idea of a group of people getting together, pooling their savings, and helping each other build homes was a relatively new idea.
George’s business was an association of blue collar people who would never have been able to get a bank loan to own their own home. They would have been condemned to remain renters for their entire lives if Mr. Bailey hadn’t enabled them to climb out of that vicious circle.
When George’s personal angel, Clarence, winks him out of existence, George not only finds out what the world would have been like without him, but also what the town of Bedford Falls would have been like without the S&L. The big bankers, like Mr. Potter, had no interest in putting people in single-family homes, but preferred to keep them in boarding houses, spending their money in honky tonk bars, had won out — and the nice little town was a mess.
The movie is a polemic against the moneyed class, disguised in a feel-good story about a man and his reunion with his loving family.
And finally, there’s “Miracle on 34th Street.” On the surface, this is about a young mother, played by Maureen O’Hara, who distrusts her imagination and has lost her faith as a result of a bad marriage. She regains it because of Kris Kringle, an older man who is convinced he’s Santa Claus.
But the real story here is a familiar one — crass commercialism is taking over what ought to be a season of giving and sharing. The villains here are the big retailers — in this case, Macy’s and Gimble’s flagship department stores in New York City — and their customers, intent only on getting a good price on the latest toy. Macy’s and Gimbles were the “big box” stores of their day, and the film shows how Kringle’s simple faith in the REAL Christmas shows them the error of their ways, while at the same time restoring O’Hara and her little daughter’s faith in Christmas and trust in other people.
All of these films are built around fairly strong social messages, but they’re so entertaining and familiar that it’s easy to forget the subtext ... the transformative power of the holiday.
I intend to watch them again (of course!) and to enjoy them.
But I’ll also try to remind myself of their real message, and to assess my own attitude and behavior — as is right and proper at this time of year.
If you wish, you might do the same.
Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.