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Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life replayed for me throughout my youth like the Alistair Syms A Christmas Carol did at Christmas, like the Passion did at Easter. The missionaries rolled a movie for a tribe in Africa: King Kong. There was a malfunction with the delivery plane, so the missionaries showed King Kong again. The third week secured a new movie to show: the tribe rebelled: no, they wanted King Kong! Ritual is what they wanted, more than drama. Don’t put ketchup on the hot dog, not if you’ve first served it to me with mustard.
In the 1950s A Christmas Carol showed every afternoon on Million Dollar Movie, sometimes in the evening too. I watched again and again: the way I listened to Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing, from the Carnegie Hall album. Ditto It’s a Wonderful Life, albeit fewer repetitions. (I was seventy before I realized how profoundly Frank Capra’s showing Jimmy Stewart how his town would change, much for the worse, if poor suffering schmuck Jimmy hadn’t lived influenced my own writing. My Dark Beacon comes straight from it.) Wonderful, wonderful, and Donna Reed: wonderful.
We live in the age of mass production, duplication, repetition. You may not have seen any of these films as often as I did, but maybe you saw On the Waterfront, or East of Eden, or The Sound of Music again and again, till it was part of your own fabric. Something: something profound: the same hymn, over and over, the same franchise hamburger.
Skinny string bean Jimmy Stewart sure was the perfect schmuck hero for Frank Capra: utterly ordinary except for being tall and skinny, with a funny way of speaking.
You could have seen Shane a zillion times and East of Eden never. You could have seen Bogart a zillion times and Stewart only a dozen. You could have read the Gospel of John daily, but Job never. The medieval peasant saw the same mass, over and over, but the Quaker never a one. All that Jimmy and Donna Reed, and that Christmas tree, and everyone bringing money, over and over, yet somehow I only saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington once: till today: hence I blabber. I was only one year old when the movie was released, but somehow I saw it: by the time I was a teen, at least once, but not many times more than once. It’s azaming to see it again.
Go thou and do likewise.
While I comment on a thing or two, scrapbook style, today, tomorrow.
Capra ends the one film with everyone singing Auld Lang Syne; he puts it right at the beginning of Smith. But let me tell you the specific that made me hit the pause key: when and how Capra shows skinny Jimmy for the first time: eleven minutes into it! The screen has been stuffed with fat cats, a Hollywood full of pork-faced character actors: Edward Arnold and clone after clone. Every one of them is defrauding the American people: some dam, buried in some irrelevant bill: pork, pork, pork. Somebody’s dead, somebody’s got to appoint a replacement senator, the string pullers have to make sure their strings are securely controlling everyone whose name is in the paper …
This Smith movie is pure Pottersville, zero Bedford Falls: until the camera falls on Jimmy!
Last night I viewed a doc on teenagers, an artificial side-product of the Twentieth Century. Reviewig the early days of the Third Reich we see the origins of the boyscouts: serviceable fascist labor: and pround of it! One of Smith‘s fat cats is as stuffed with pork as any, but all his kids are scouts: products of Roosevelt’s CCC! Jimmy is the boys’ hero scout-leader, rubbing two boys together to make a fire, pretending that land-theft is the Christian thing to do.
These Capra films are nightmares! lovable nightmares. Boy do they look different to me at seventy-six, the anarchist jailbird, snuffed philosopher, than they did at ten, thirteen, sixteen … when I was just plain Tom Sawyer.
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