Over the winter holidays in the U.S., the films It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story play on TV in what sometimes quite literally is a loop. Channels TBS and TNT have a marathon “24 Hours of A Christmas Story” that has caused me (a fan of the film and the stories it is based on) to change the channel.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film and I have watched it many times. I don’t watch it every year but I did watch part of it on Christmas Day 2020. I love the scene in the car when George and Mary are just married and have their $2000 in cash to go on a honeymoon that fulfills some of George’s dreams to travel. They are so very happy and hopeful. But then the trip is delayed and finally canceled because of a run on the Bailey Savings and Loan. I watched until they use all but two dollars of that cash to pay people and maintain solvency. I turned off the film then because I know that the film turns quite dark before the happy ending.
I am not the first observer to say that both of these films are actually pretty dark – as in film noir – considering they are also coated in nostalgia, family, and all kinds of love.
A Christmas Story loosely threads together five stories that Jean Shepherd performed on the radio and published first in magazines and then in his 1966 “novel” (really a story collection threaded together), In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and in the Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. (The stories were later republished together atsA Christmas Story.)
I devoured both of those books and was a faithful listener to Shep on late-night radio from WOR-AM in nearby New York City. Ralphie’s story about the quest for a Red Ryder BB gun first appeared in Playboy in 1964. That may seem like an unlikely place for such a story, but don’t confuse the stories with Bob Clark’s nostalgia-tinged film adaptation.
The original story starts in an NYC Automat in the 1960s present. The narrator is a grownup Shepherd/Ralphie who is interrupted in his lunchtime chicken pot pie by an old lady who sits at his table. She is wearing a pin that says DISARM THE TOY INDUSTRY. He engages her and she rants about a toy industry that forces “implements of blasphemous War on the innocent children,”
The narrator (and I would say Shep) doesn’t agree at all and the conversation sends him back to his own childhood innate desire for that BB gun. Of course, if it wasn’t for the ads that he saw in magazines for the gun, he would never have been driven to become obsessed with getting one.
None of that makes it into the film, and this past week I read an article, “Betrayal: Jean Shepherd and ‘A Christmas Story‘” by Lee Vinsel, about the film. Vinsel goes a lot deeper into mass communications and consumerism in American life than I will here, so read the article.
I agree with him that Shepherd often strongly declared that he did not like or deal in nostalgia. At the end of his career and life, I often heard him bad mouth radio, which made his career. He also was a big critic of consumer schlock, junk art and even mass media but he used all of it in his work.
I don’t think Jean Shepherd was really very honest in his proclamations. I think he was at least a cynical nostalgist. He enjoyed the schlock that he found on his journeys into New Jersey on his TV show Shepherd’s Pie.
Some of the cynicism gets into the film. The best example is Ralphie’s love of the Little Orphan Annie radio show and the offer of a decoder ring that you could get with Ovaltine labels mailed to the station. His mom buys the required Ovaltine and he finally gets the ring which allows you to decode a special message from Annie. He realizes with the first message decoded that is’s just an advertising scam. He has been duped by the company, radio show, and Annie herself.
Mass media doesn’t influence kids? In the film, there are several fantasy scenes in the film where Ralphie sees himself in a Western movie or melodrama. His fantasies are very much based on radio shows and movies. Director Bob Clark, shot those scenes with a soft focus and hazy framed look that quite literally softens most of the sharp edges from the stories.
I never heard Shepherd criticize the film, which he was intimately involved in, though he denied the nostalgia label on it. In the article, he is quoted as saying he saw the film as “Dickens’s Christmas Carol as retold by Scrooge.” It’s not really that but the film is filled with disappointments. They occur not only for Ralphie but for his father and his always suffering mother.
Shepherd’s cameo in the film is at the department store line to see Santa. he tells Ralphie to get to te back of the line. Of course, Santa is pretty cynical too and responds to Ralphie’s wish for a BB gun in the same way as his mother: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
But all’s well that ends well. He gets his rifle and he almost shoots his eye out but just breaks his eyeglasses.
Ralphie’s Captain Ahab obsession with the gun is not just a childish thing. His father – the Old Man – becomes just as single-minded about things like his “major award” leg lamp, getting a deal on a Christmas tree, decorating it, dealing with the furnace in the basement and those damn Bumpus hounds next door.
Mild-mannered Ralphie finds an animal fierceness inside of himself when the bully, Scut Farkus, terrorizes Ralphie and his friends. After long suffering from this bully, when he hits Ralphie in the eye with a snowball, Ralphie goes reptilian and beats up Farkus.
Vinsel’s article reminds me that the funny late movie scene of Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant was not funny at all in the written version. Shepherd writes that “Ordinarily this would have been a gala of the highest order, going to the chop-suey joint. Today, it had all the gaiety of a funeral procession. The meal was eaten completely in silence.”
It’s a Wonderful Life had a disappointing 1946 premiere, recording a loss of $525,000 at the box office for RKO. A clerical error prevented the copyright from being renewed properly in 1974.and the film became a perennial holiday favorite in the 1980s, possibly due to its repeated showings on hundreds of local television stations.
It found a new audience at Christmas time A Christmas Story also had a disappointing showing at its 1983 but found a cultish audience in the 1990s on cable TV.
If you read about film noir, these two films do not fit the general definition. Most of these films center around crimes and sexual intrigue. They are often filled with characters who have cynical attitudes and that does fit my two films. The classic period of American film noir is the 1940s and 1950s. Not necessarily by choice, most are in black and white and are known for a style of low-key visual style that owes much to German Expressionist cinematography. Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is much closer in this classic visual style than A Christmas Story. These two films hide their darkness under a series of happier and even funny scenes.
In a 2010 essay for Salon, Richard Cohen described It’s a Wonderful Life as “the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made”. In the “Pottersville” sequence, he wrote, George Bailey is not seeing the world that would exist had he never been born, but rather “the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.” Pottersville: is a noir city, with pool halls, strip clubs, bars, dance halls, and pawnshops. Violet is possibly saved by George but in the no-George world, she is all noir femme fatale. George is ready to commit suicide.
I listened to a podcast years ago that made me think about George Bailey’s story as noir. Without the right people in charge, the world will become a noir world. One of my sons said after seeing George’s wish to never be born come true that it reminded him of Kevin’s wish in Home Alone that he never had a family. Kevin’s wish comes true through stupid oversight while George’s wish is fulfilled by an angel.
This was the first movie Frank Capra made after returning from service in World War II. He never meant it to be a Christmas film (though it was released in December). To him, it was a celebration of the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens and a post-war country that would offer them a real chance to see those dreams come true with the help of their friends and neighbors.