Christmas Movies: The Nativity, Dickens, and Frank Capra

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went…one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous safe attached to its ankle…cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, on a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The nativity, a narrative of beautiful simplicity in the words of St. Luke, is a bore on the motion picture screen, especially as Hollywood film directors render it. The usually irrepressible storytelling energies of Cecil B. DeMille (King of Kings), William Wyler (Ben-Hur), and George Stevens (The Greatest Story Ever Told) freeze when they stage the incident in the stable. Hollywood lighting turns straw to gold and makes the workaday animals appear as just so many toys, stuffed to simulate reverence; the sky seems the product of Hallmark card designers, and the actors communicate only by using pious smiles that come perilously close to being smirks. Much better, because much earthier, is the opening sequence of Passolini’s visualization of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, but even this is vitiated by Passolini’s decision to put an American black spiritual on the soundtrack during the birth. The director obviously wanted to link the birth of Christ with the plight of all others born into poverty, but the reach for universality is unnecessary and smacks of editorializing.

Passolini and the Hollywood craftsmen were all faced with the same problem and were all defeated by it: how do you represent the invisible? For the true drama of the Nativity, its real dramatic action, is hidden behind the events shown. The angelic visitations, the several journeys and submissions and stoically endured sufferings, provide sufficient matter for paintings and pageants, but they are not the stuff of drama. Drama demands protagonists who plan, enact, succeed or fall, and who then wrest meaning from their successes and failures.

In truth, the real protagonist of the first Christmas story is God the Father, and the initial gospel incidents are the first stages of His benign scheme to interfere with, to retrack, mankind’s destiny. But this Protagonist never enters the story physically. He moves only by proxy. No actor can play him (except in folk or pseudo-folk plays such as Green Pastures), and therefore we never see Him in action, though we see the results of his decisions.

Thus, whether staged by a sensationalist such as DeMille or a Marxist humanist such as Passolini, the Nativity can only be a picturesque, basically inert prologue to the truly dramatic story which then unfolds and which does have a visible and truly heroic protagonist: the life and works of Christ.

And yet, though the Nativity in itself is a dramatic trap, it is also the wellspring of all good secular Christmas movies. In them what unfolds is the emulation by mortals of God’s interference for good in the opening scenes of the gospel. These modern stories are more viable as drama because a human hero can be portrayed by an actor; we see him operate within a specific community and not on all mankind; the community accepts or rejects his interference, and this interaction is dramatic in itself. Thus, what is cosmic, invisible, and one-sided (the Incarnation is a gift, not a reward) in the gospel becomes local, concrete, and reciprocal in these modern tales of Yuletide benevolence.

The most famous of Christmas stories honors God’s benevolent interference by presenting the fate of a man who abjures interference. Scrooge, compared to such an ogre as Lionel Barrymore’s Banker Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, is hardly an active villain. We don’t see or read of him foreclosing on orphanages or cheating poor widows. Scrooge is evil because of what he does not do. He never interferes for good. Dickens’s fable isn’t anti-capitalist; it is anti-Malthusian. Malthus (or at least Malthus as understood by Dickens) believed that any attempt to alleviate poverty would encourage insupportable increases in population. Scrooge concurs. “Let them [the poor] die and decrease the surplus population.”

The Ghost of Christmas Present speaks for Dickens in his contemptuous refutation of Malthus: “…forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die?…O God! To hear an insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

One of the many virtues of the Alistair Sim version of Carol, scripted by Noel (!) Langley and directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst is that it captures perfectly Scrooge’s peculiarly passive evil. Unlike Reginald Owen’s senile hothead in the dreadful Hollywood version or George C. Scott’s self-congratulatory dandy in the recent TV adaptation, Sim’s Scrooge is an emotional and societal isolate, too cold for cholera, too removed to feel rage (though the sadistically unremitting good cheer of his nephew does get his dander up). The script’s extensions of the novella show, in the Christmas Past sequence, how Scrooge made his fortune, and even these inventions emphasize Scrooge’s aloofness.

The best one shows what happens after a swindler confesses that he has cheated a company which has a board of directors that includes Scrooge and Marley. The two offer to save the company in return for 51 percent of the shares. It’s a great moment when the board members shout their protests while Scrooge and Marley tilt back their chairs, pat their paunches, and wait for the opposition to collapse. They are like crocodiles floating with jaws open, waiting for little fish to swim inside. Passive evil. Conversely, when Scrooge reforms, Sim doesn’t portray his new goodness as merely warmhearted but as kinetic. He makes Ebenezer move in a St. Vitus dance of frenzied benevolence. It’s an entirely justified bit of excess in an adaptation that never shies away from the emotional sumptuousness of its source.

Film critic Richard Schickel thinks that the Frank Capra film, It’s a Wonderful Life has “cruelly overtaken Dickens as the most loved of all modern Christmas stories. It has a charge that I don’t think A Christmas Carol comes close to….” I’m not so convinced of this usurpation, but, in some respects, Life is more complex than Carol. Capra’s hero begins where Scrooge leaves off. George Bailey doesn’t have to learn to interfere for humankind’s good. Through the good offices of his building and loan company, he has been the moral and economic mainstay of his little community. But on one Christmas eve, because of the blundering of a relative/assistant, he faces public disgrace and financial ruin. What also edges him towards suicide is his knowledge that he’s consumed his youth supporting a one-horse town from which he would much rather have escaped.

That least staid of American actors, James Stewart, wonderfully illuminates Bailey’s tangled feelings. Early in the film there is a supper table scene between the twenty-five-year-old George and his father. About to leave Bedford Falls for college and (so he believes) a subsequent life of adventure, George expresses his relief at not having to repeat his father’s destiny of being “cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office…this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe…I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.” His father, the current head of the company, is stung into defending the life he has led “in our shabby little office” trying to help people. George tries to make amends for his tactlessness by letting the weary, near-beaten but somehow unbowed old man know that his son thinks he is a great man.

Stewart fills this moment with compassion, but just before leaving the table to attend a dance, he gives his father a split-second look that is one of the most piercing, blood-freezing moments ever recorded on camera. The look—not noticed by Bailey senior—communicates more than one emotion. It registers, all at once, George’s love for his father, his pity for a life whittled down by worry, and also sheer revulsion at a way of life that George does not wish to carry on after his father’s death. How this revulsion does not cancel out the love that is also apparent in the look is one of the mysteries of great acting that cannot be explained, least of all by the actor who accomplishes it.

This revulsion will catch up with George later in the movie when he has indeed followed in his father’s footsteps. The suicide that seems inevitable to George will be prevented only by supernatural intervention.

This supernatural element is used to much more harrowing effect than that contained in A Christmas Carol. Dickens’s spirits serve as a board of review: here was your life, Ebenezer, here is your life, and here is what your death will be if you don’t repent. They help Scrooge see the results of his non-existence by granting Bailey’s despairing wish that he had never been born. Seeing the squalid place his town would have become without him, Bailey begs for his existence to be restored to him. And when he does get it back, it turns out that his community has been waiting to save him by reciprocating his past generosities.

Why didn’t Bailey appeal for help to his friends in the first place? He is not above appealing to the evil banker Potter, whom he loathes, or to his former rival, the slick businessman Wainwright, for whom he has always felt mild contempt. Why then can’t he appeal to the people he has always cherished and aided? And why is he so stunned when they show up at his door with relief?

It is precisely here that Capra’s insight is profound. George Bailey is one of those people who can’t help mentally hogging the virtues they practice. George so strongly conceives himself as a benefactor and a protector that he can’t conceive himself as being on the receiving end of charity. To ask help from those he despises doesn’t bother him but to petition those he cherishes is beyond his power. This fault doesn’t negate his nobility, but it makes Bailey a near-tragic hero and gives It’s a Wonderful Life a darker emotional shading than most Christmas movies can bear. But then It’s a Wonderful Life bears viewing and re-viewing even when it’s not Christmastime.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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