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Messages of Hope, Though Far Between

TIMES ARTS EDITOR

Christmas always seems to me to be all the holidays and most of the prominent emotions rolled into one. By now it is both religious and secular, by tradition and observance respectively, a duality that puts the secularist ACLU in contention with both Christians and Jews, although I see that the creche has just won a round in Monterey.

The day has all the end-of-year finality of New Year’s Eve, all the thankfulness of Thanksgiving, including the gathering-in of the family, much of the sense of renewal of Easter. And, as on Labor Day, you are mindful of those who have to work when so many people don’t.

Emotionally, Christmas is what you might call intermittent, with sunshine and rain showers contending. December 25 measures the passage of time like no other day this side of your birthday. “I was just writing Christmas cards yesterday ,” said the forlorn note on one card, meaning that yesterday was a year ago. At a certain point the Dec. 25’s go by ever faster, like telephone poles watched from an accelerating train.

The joys of the day, even if they are abundant, are always undercut by melancholy--for the friends the dying year has taken with it, for goals not achieved, by the thought of the growing millions for whom the joys are not abundant, only the pains. Even when they survive, the joys have a hard fight with a growing cynicism that attends the getting and spending and general exploitation of the season.

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Maybe it’s because Christmas is so various a collage, contrastingly light and dark, and so personal an experience, that the movies, when you think about it, have done so relatively little with it. The exhaustive Leslie Halliwell lists fewer than a dozen films with Christmas in the title, plus three “Scrooges” further back. Memory rather than lists discloses the 1942 “Holiday Inn,” in which Bing Crosby introduced “White Christmas.”

This year’s most memorable use of the Christmas season is undoubtedly in John Hughes’ “Home Alone,” in which the extraordinary Macaulay Culkin is left behind at Christmastime, to contend not only with accidental abandonment but with a couple of dimwit but malevolent burglars. The Christmas timing is symbolically perfect, the film having been a rich gift for the distributor and a present for audiences who have made it one of the top hits of the year.

Turning the dial a few nights ago, I lit on one of the classic, recurring Christmas films, the 1951 Alastair Sim “Scrooge” done in glorious black-and-white. What I saw was a colorized version that seemed to leave the characters vaguely greenish, suggesting the way your skin looks when you stand under a mercury-vapor street light. But, in black-and-white or a kind of diseased sepia, the Dickens tale of sentimental redemption from greed and indifference is sure-fire stuff. Christmas is still the most indefatigably sentimental of holidays, and cynicism hasn’t won a round yet.

The classic American Christmas film is, of course, the Frank Capra-James Stewart “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which appears to run on television even more often than Cal Worthington commercials, both in black-and-white, as it should, and in pallid color, as it shouldn’t.

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When Frank Capra pitched the plot to Stewart just after the end of World War II, Stewart listened to Capra’s rather stumbling synopsis (it’s not easy to summarize, at that) and said, approximately, “Frank, if you want me to play a guy whose life is saved because his angel hasn’t earned his wings yet, I’m your man.”

It was a way of saying, “I trust you.” And never was an actor’s trust better placed. The script, by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Capra himself, is the most sentimental of movies and, thanks to Stewart himself, still one of the most appealing in its dramatic insistence on the ultimate triumph of good over evil, hope over despair and love (of wife, family, town, country, world) conquering all.

By rights, in its all-pervading goodness I suppose the film should make our teeth ache. But for most of us it doesn’t, especially as it grows year by year more encrusted with our associations, and our recollections of seeing it in other years and different settings. It is still Stewart’s favorite among his films.

It is an irony that only a few years later Capra decided that the audience, presumably hipper, more cynical and sophisticated than before, had had enough of his populist optimism, his repeated vision of the ordinary man (extraordinary in the clutch) winning against the odds. Capra quit making films. Now “Capraesque” has become a selling point for movies that Capra himself might or might not have chosen to make, but say that the world can still provide happy endings for the Joes and Janes who have struggled for them.

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As against only a year ago, this Christmas is heavily shadowed by fears of war and the realities of recession. The plight of the homeless is beyond the gift of Stewart’s guardian angel, Henry Travers, to solve.

A cynic once remarked that an optimist is anyone who thinks the future is uncertain. But it is only necessary to hark back to the darkest Christmases of one’s own life--observed amid deaths in the family, disastrous financial circumstances and the prospect or the fact of other wars--to realize that one of the gifts of Christmas is hope, distant and uncertain as it may seem.

I can do no more than wish us all that gift of hope.


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