Christmas must have held special resonance during World War II. You can hear it in the yearnings of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” cherished by soldiers away from home, and in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine in 1944.
World War II was different from our long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where some go off to fight and most of the country remains uninvolved. WWII was total war. Just about everyone had a personal stake in it. People were soldiers or relatives of soldiers; many worked in defense plants. Lots of people served as air raid wardens. Everyone felt the pinch of gas, tires and food rationing, and the whole country read war news in newspapers or watched newsreels in theaters.
Probably not by chance, four of our best Christmas stories came out in the 1940s. None of them is expressly about the war, but they share feelings of wistfulness, struggle and loss, and they all rely on either communities or families (a kind of community) coming together to find stability and hope.
Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life” is hardly obscure. You can’t miss it this time of year on TV, but viewers tend to overlook how tough-minded a movie it really is. George Bailey (James Stewart) literally goes through a dark night of the soul before he can accept that his life of constant disappointments also has times of beauty and good fortune.
The movie starts in Heaven when a low-ranking angel of no accomplishments is given the task of saving George. George is a married man with four little kids. He never got to go to college, as he’d hoped; he never got to travel, as he’d hoped. He’s had to take over the family business, a small savings and loan in Bedford Falls, because his father died and like a soldier George has sacrificed for his brother and the business.
In his misery, on Christmas Eve, George jumps off a bridge – and Clarence the angel steps in to save him. George moans that he’d rather die and that the world would be better without him. So Clarence shows George how that world would look.
It’s a cold, grim vision, shot in a film noir style. The town has become a raucous, harsh and unforgiving place. There’s no community, as George has lived it. His mother is lonely and bitter; the sweet high school flirt has become a prostitute, and the evil banker owns the place – all because George was never born. The sight of George running around town on a snowy night, frantic to get people to recognize him – trying to prove he exists — is frightening. How could they recognize him – he was never born.
It’s painful to witness George’s anguish. It makes him want to live, and that’s his reward, as his family and community embrace him.
Like many Christmas movies, “Remember the Night” (1940) takes off from an absurd premise. A Manhattan assistant district attorney (Fred MacMurray) is handed the case of a high-end shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck). One hitch is that it’s just before Christmas when juries supposedly go easy on women defendants, so tough prosecutor MacMurray gets the case continued until after the holidays, and Stanwyck can sit in the pokey.
But she is Stanwyck, after all, and in movies from the Hollywood heyday, star power trumps plausibility. MacMurray gets a bailbondsman buddy to spring her. She’s hungry from her near-jail experience, so he takes her to dinner and dancing at a nightclub, realizes that both of their mothers live in Indiana, and he offers Stanwyck a ride. On a road trip, we see that while Stanwyck’s nasty mother is probably the cause of her daughter’s criminality, MacMurray’s mother and aunt are pure welcoming goodness.
“Remember the Night” (1940) was written by Preston Sturges, one of the great comic geniuses of the movies, who brings serious trouble and danger into his comedies (look at Sullivan’s Travels or The Lady Eve). Tucked inside the Indiana Christmas folksiness though is a serious ethical dilemma.
Prosecuting attorneys really should not go off on holiday road trips with defendants, and although both characters struggle against their growing feelings, the writing and the acting are so good that you know long before the first kiss that these two are completely in sync and aware of the pitfalls in what they’re doing. It’s in their postures and gestures. From the start they get each other’s jokes and practically finish each other’s sentences.
But Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen make the pair earn their Christmas harmony. The film has each of them fight off their instincts and desires. They can’t take their hands off each other, but for romance to succeed, MacMurray and Stanwyck have to use their brains instead of their lower organs. “Remember the Night” oozes charm, but it also comes with a tough underbelly. Nobody gets off the hook. It’s clear, though, that they will figure it out, and are willing to pay the price, something the audience understood.
The 1944 “Meet Me in St. Louis” is only a quarter a Christmas movie. The story goes season by season from the summer of 1903 to the springtime opening of the world’s fair – The Louisiana Purchase Exposition – in 1904. The Christmas section breaks your heart.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is about uncertainty and change – there’s a new-fangled telephone in the dining room of the Smith family and electric lights are replacing the lovely romantic gas lamps. Daughter Rose is thinking about marriage; the imperious father has announced that he’s moving them all to New York. The family is deeply unsettled.
The young people return from their last Christmas ball in St. Louis to a house disheveled with the coming move. The youngest child, Tootie (the glorious Margaret O’Brien), is in distress. To calm her, sister Esther (Judy Garland) sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (written for the film), which is not exactly a comforting song, especially this stanza:
“From now on, we all will be together
“If the Fates allow
“But ’til then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
“So have yourself a merry little Christmas now”
As soon as the song ends – it’s a heartbreaking scene – little Tootie in her nightie runs out of the house to the backyard where she’s made a family (no accident) of snow people, and she knocks off their heads with a broomstick. This is not the phony, comic trauma of a film like “Home Alone,” it’s the deeply felt anguish of a child afraid that her world is falling apart. The film ends well, but as the family rejoices at the fair, you don’t forget what Tootie went through just a few minutes earlier, and what saved her was her family coming together on Christmas.
For me, though, the greatest Christmas movie is Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner.” The shop of the title is in Budapest. Its location around the corner suggests a modest place, a shop, rather than a full-service department store. The picture respects pre-World War II middle European formalities. The owner is Mr. Matuschek; his trusted lead clerk is Mr. Kralic (James Stewart) and the cheeky intruder who worms her way into a job is Miss (not Ms.) Novak (Margaret Sullavan).
Miss Novak and Mr. Kralic have their differences; Mr. Matuschek has problems at home. Most of the picture takes place in the tight space of the shop, where the employees and the boss are forced to be a family of sorts. The Lubitsch family is a diverse construct, ranging from a young harmless blowhard to a couple of shy middle-aged women, a timid family man and one malicious fop who looks ahead (really only days in actual time) to the Nazis.
It’s a family set in its ways until events upset the balance. After a good bit of struggle, the shop has great Christmas Eve sales, but money is the least of it. The clerks in the shop have to realign themselves and make compromises. They find out what love and respect mean, and how they really matter to each other. Mr. Kralic and Miss Novak find love, of course (it is a Hollywood movie), but again things go past the obvious. They learn about feeling, honesty and trust.
“The Shop Around the Corner” is very funny, which for Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson is serious business – it’s the way into understanding how human beings work. “The Shop Around the Corner” is as close to perfect as movies get.
Looking back on these gorgeous films, though, they all are flawed. They presume a homogeneous, white, Christian society of mostly middle and upper middle class people (except for Sicilian immigrant Capra).
It’s hard to fault these filmmakers for being of their times, but it’s important to notice that their deeply humane visions of humanity are only partial. But those visions are humane, and they matter.
Howie Movshovitz teaches film in the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado Denver and is a film critic at KUNC.
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