I saw this last year at the Cottage Road cinema with ms_siobhan
and other chums, and came away feeling distinctly conflicted about it
. They showed it again this Thursday, and my opinion hasn't changed much.
I do like parts of it. Jimmy Stewart is fab (especially his accent); I love the high school graduation ball where everyone dances the Charleston and ends up leaping into the under-floor swimming pool; Henry Travers as Clarence Odbody is wonderfully sweet and bumbling; and this time I managed to get slightly more into the spirit of the final scene where everyone piles in to save George Bailey from financial disaster (i.e. I cried).
I also noticed some of its clever little filmic devices more now that I know the plot. For example, the very first shot of the movie itself is of the town notice saying "You are now in Bedford Falls" - a lovely signal of transportation into the world of the story, much like a fairy-tale beginning with the words "Once upon a time, in a far-away land..." And indeed the whole first half of the film casts us as the audience in the role of Clarence Odbody with the angel Joseph, looking down on George Bailey's life as though they too were watching a film-reel. Very meta.
But even if you can swallow the idealisation of small-town America, there are scenes in this film that I just can't forgive. Like the way Harry, George's younger brother, thinks it's absolutely fine to slap Annie, the family's black maid-servant, on the bottom. And even worse the scene after the high-school graduation dance where George and Mary walk home in borrowed clothing after their tumble into the swimming-pool. The moon is out, they've had a fantastic evening together, and they are both flirting and teasing one another, laughing, playing and working up the courage to declare their romantic intentions. But when they get distracted by an old man shouting at them from his porch, George accidentally steps on the belt of Mary's robe as she is trying to run off, and she ends up naked and hiding in a hydrangea bush. This is how the dialogue between them then proceeds, taken from this transcript site
MARY: Give me my robe!
GEORGE: I've read about things like this, but I never...
MARY: Shame on you! I'm going to tell your mother on you!
GEORGE: Oh, my mother's way up on the corner over there.
MARY: I'll call the police!
GEORGE: They're way downtown. They'd be on my side, too.
MARY: Then, then, then I'm going to scream!
GEORGE: Maybe I could sell tickets. Let's see. No, no, the point is, in order to get this robe... I've got it. I'll make a deal with you, Mary.
At that point, the entire scene is interrupted by a car pulling up to tell George his father has died. But what we've just seen is a fully clothed man telling a naked woman that she is entirely in his power, that the rest of society including the police would entirely condone that situation, and that he now intends to exploit it. Except that it's all meant to be a hilarious joke, because we, and she, understand that he 'merely' intends to ask her to marry him, and she has already made it clear that she will consent to that. That is, raw male privilege and power is actually quite funny because it can sometimes be put to 'honourable' ends. So that's all right, then.
I get that times change, and that this dialogue might have seemed like acceptably harmless flirty banter at the time when the film was released. But it makes me unhappy that it ever did - like ripples on a pond, the knock-on effects of those sorts of attitudes are still very much with us. I'm not even convinced they've softened out very much at all. And meanwhile, I am watching the film in the early 21st century, in a world where (a current TV advert for the DVD informs me) this is "the most loved Christmas film of all time". I don't love this dialogue, and I don't think there is enough else of unproblematic magic and wonder in the rest of the film to compensate for it and make me love the film as a whole in spite of it.
Will I go along again if they show this film at the Cottage next year, given my ambiguity about it? Actually, I probably will. It's become like a sore tooth now - something I feel I have to keep worrying at until I get why so many people seem to find it simply magical, rather than a bizarre mixture of the syrupy and the downright unsettling. Maybe the answer is simply "Jimmy Stewart"?Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.