When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Everyone seems to have a holiday favorite…
Categories: Getting Personal

I really don’t have a favorite Christmas movie. I really like HOLIDAY INN, but to me it’s not much about Christmas (first thing I always think of is Fred Astaire’s firecracker dance from the Fourth of July chapter of the film). But many folks’ big holiday treat, the Paramount blockbuster WHITE CHRISTMAS to me is (to quote one of my favorite cinema lines, from Peter Watkins’ PRIVILEGE) “a nostalgic breaking of wind after a dinner of old sentiments.”

But this year for Christmas, a friend brought over Frank Capra’s POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES to watch after Christmas dinner. I know that THE Frank Capra movie to watch this time of year is IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but I think I met my lifetime quota for that movie around 1983. [Although I’m fascinated by the fact that some of the biggest hardasses I know claim this as their favorite film: e.g., a friend’s abusive father sits down and weeps over this film every December 25th.]

Because of the Damon Runyon source material, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES is in a certain sense Capra’s anti-IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: smartassed instead of folksy, Manhattan instead of Middle America, where characters connive and manipulate in order to reach their dreams instead of having the rug pulled out from under. Then, there’s the cast: I mean, how warm and fuzzy can you get when the screen is filled with the spidery presence of Bette Davis (in a “sympathetic” role), looking like she was dragged the length of the Appalachian Trail, face-down? Also, having Peter Falk and Ann-Margret in the cast doesn’t exactly give off an Away in a Manger aura to the viewing experience. And (as I’ve gone on record before) the great, underrated Glenn Ford again proves he was one of the best actors in history.

The print we watched on Christmas was a VHS tape, panned-and-scanned with jumpy/splotchy color and tape creases that dumped so much oxide on my heads I had to remove the cover of the VCR and generously swab with denatured alcohol. [“How did we ever watch VHS??” as my buddy Jim G. recently asked.] But still, all the elements came through. Even the super-tight color theory in the art design and costuming came across. For example, in the scene between Ford and Sheldon Leonard, there’s some dramatically unnecessary business of one actor trying on the other’s overcoat yet it was totally necessary for the visual ideology of the scene.

And has anyone out there seen the original version of this film: LADY FOR A DAY (1933)??

As someone fairly immune to the Christmas phenomenon, I suppose my favorite Christmas scene in the movies can be found in Carl Foreman’s THE VICTORS: in this pensive, well-made early 1960s epic (to which LIFE magazine posed the question, “The Victors: Too Much Tragedy?”), there is a sudden break in this tale of the liberation of Europe, which follows all-star G.I.s and their war-is-hell adventures and steamy-yet-doomed affairs with the local women, to have a gorgeous black-and-white sequence with no dialog. The soundtrack is Frank Sinatra’s wartime recording of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” while the narrative is the military execution of the only G.I. shot for desertion (out of over 21,000 deserters) during WWII, Pvt. Eddie Slovik. It’s done in long-shot, in the snow, and the black figures on the white snow have the aesthetic charge for me what the final shot of GRAND ILLUSION does for most cinephiles. Yet, the counterpoint of Ol’ Blue Eyes on the soundtrack and a military firing squad executing a fellow countryman encapsulates the American moral conflict with Christmas: spirituality vs. consumerism, secular holiday vs. holy holiday, etc. And if anyone should know moral conflict in America, it’s writer/director Carl Foreman: the 1952 movie he scripted, HIGH NOON, was President Eisenhower’s favorite film and received multiple White House screenings; yet while the President was thrilling to his screenplay, Foreman was forced to leave the U.S. and begin life over in England because of being politically blacklisted by Hollywood. (Eisenhower had also refused clemency for Slovik.)

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2 Comments to “Everyone seems to have a holiday favorite…”

  1. Dixie Burge says:

    Ummmmmm…….the last, and longest, paragraph in this “review” totally leaves the original subject behind and rambles on about other movies that have nothing to do with “Pocketful Of Miracles”! What was THAT for??

  2. Doug says:

    Thanks for posting, Dixie. I don’t consider myself a reviewer or a critic; I actually have a distaste for those monikers. So, you’re correct: this wasn’t a review. A friend bringing over a VHS tape for us to watch at Christmas-time was the springboard for pondering what Christmas scenes in movies had been memorable or not to me. And the ghostly, ironic sequence from THE VICTORS stayed with me the most.

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