BEFORE: It all comes to a head tonight, this recurring theme of actors who were also in "It's a Wonderful Life" - tonight's film is directed by Frank Capra, and it seems like half the cast of that Christmas film is here in this one, plus a bunch of people who were in the "Thin Man" movies, and the other Capra film, "Meet John Doe". For starters, James Stewart carries over from "Harvey" -
AFTER: In addition to the director, Frank Capra, and the star, Jimmy Stewart, exactly how much crossover is there between this film and "It's a Wonderful Life"? Well, the head of the family in tonight's film also played Mr. Potter in that Christmas film - it's kind of weird to see him in a good-guy role, and not as the fat, evil banker, who's played by a different actor here. Then we've got the actor who played Mr. Gower, the actor who played Pa Bailey, and the guy who played Bert the Cop. Even the actor who played the real estate salesman, the one who chewed out Mr. Potter near the end of the film is here, playing the IRS agent. But in the past week I've also seen the members of the cast who played Mary, Clarence the Angel, Violet, Nick the bartender, and at this point it wouldn't surprise me if the crow in tonight's film was the same one that lived in the bank - yeah, I may have seen "It's a Wonderful Life" a few too many times, I've purposely avoided it the last few Christmases.
But when I put "It's a Wonderful Life" up next to "Meet John Doe" and add tonight's film, I have to conclude that Frank Capra was a socialist. Maybe a secret socialist, because back then it was equated with Communism, and that was a dirty word. But socialism, or at least a new breed of it, seems to be on the upswing in this country right now, so maybe it's time to pay a little more attention to the ideas of Mr. Capra. In many ways it's the same struggle over and over again in his films, the "evil" fat-cat banker, representing capitalism, and the "good"-natured quirky American family, with a nice house filled with people with big dreams. And we know they're middle-class, because they can only afford two servants. Their cook had to double as the maid - I know, but times were tough back then.
What are we to make of the class struggle that ensues, when a man from the rich family falls in love with the woman from the middle-class family? (Not the lower-class family, or God forbid, the maid, that would shock the audiences too much...) Can the families overcome their differences and find some common ground, for the sake of two kids in love?
What's also thrown into the mix here is the fact that the man's father, Anthony Kirby, is consolidating his munitions operations, and building a new factory - that's capitalism, patriotism and progress, all rolled into one. But apparently even though there's a ton of places the factory could be built, for some reason it HAS to be built in this specific 12-block area, and the people who live there all have to vacate and find other places to live. But the holdout is - you guessed it - the family of the woman that his son loves, and they've dug in for the long haul. Geez, what are the odds? So this comedy of errors ensues, where each family doesn't know whether to love, hate, accept or disavow the other, and it leads to an extremely awkward dinner party that ends with everyone being thrown in jail. I suppose there's a nice symbolic contrast between the professionally made munitions and the Sycamores' homemade fireworks, but it's a little beside the point.
I'm reminded of a real-world situation from a few years back - when the Barclays sports center + retail complex was built in Brooklyn. This concept of "eminent domain", where the city can buy up property for public use, displacing people, essentially forcing them to move or sell their property, got co-opted over the last decade, and started being applied to private developers - in this case, Bruce Ratner. Mostly the new proposed center was built over the old subway rail yards at Atlantic Avenue, but the project was so big it also required a number of businesses and residential buildings to be demolished. There were some residents who refused to sell, so while the project was delayed, the neighborhood became less and less patrolled by police, and therefore a dangerous place to live. The final holdouts got more money in the end, but the community resistance was high all along - then the whole project got stalled by the recession, which would have been hilarious, except nobody but me was laughing. (Read up on Vera Coking vs. Bob Guccione and Donald Trump, for another similar "holdout" case.)
But let's get back to the Vanderhof / Sycamore family. They must own the home, maybe it's been in their family for generations, but nobody in the family seems to have a real job, except for Alice, who works in the Kirby's bank. Is she supporting everyone else, who seem to have a bunch of hobbies like painting, dancing and playing the vibraphone, but don't work? This is like a family of hipsters, but back in the 1930's, what gives? I think they just called them "unemployed" or "shiftless". Then we find out that the patriarch, Martin, hasn't paid any income tax in the last 20 years because he "doesn't believe in it". It's meant to be comic when the IRS man comes to argue with him, and in my opinion, the tax man gives up WAY too quickly. I realize that income tax might have been a new thing back in 1938, but isn't this the type of conversation that ends with the owing party in handcuffs?
This is what really grinds my gears about hipsters - today's hipsters, not the 1930's kind. They want all the benefits of living in America, to enjoy all the freedoms that they're guaranteed, PLUS free college, put what do they really bring to the table? OK, so Martin Vanderhoff doesn't believe in paying taxes, at least he's got a daughter who works. The hipsters of today get around this problem by not having any income at all, just gigging here and there I guess, so no income, no income tax. And then, just like the family in this film, they spend their time making and exploding a bunch of illegal fireworks. Lock 'em up, I say, every last one of 'em.
I work with a bunch of younger people, and at a recent party I described how I came to buy my house - at the age of 23 my first wife and I went in on a condo in Brooklyn, and after the divorce I bought out her share and got her name off the mortgage. Then I lived there for another 8 years (12 total), and sold it for four times the original asking price, and bought (most of) a house in Queens with the money. Perfectly legal, though it felt a little wrong, like buying property with someone else's money. But the kids today, they don't know how to do it - you'd have thought I was J.P. Morgan with the awe my story inspired. I tell them all to scrape up a down payment, buy a small piece of property, start building up some equity, and then just wait. But the waiting really is the hardest part for the younger generation, since they tend to think everything should be handed to them. Well, it doesn't work that way, not in my America.
The story here doesn't end the same way as the Barclays story - here the rich man suddenly realizes how much fun these lazy hipsters have all day, and wants to join in. Another brainwashed socialist.
In these Capra stories, why is it always the "evil" capitalist who needs to see the error of his ways? Why is it never the "good" socialist who realizes that, "Hey, the free market really has done a lot for this country!" I suppose that in a Capra film would be about as likely as a hipster getting a job, or Donald Trump realizing how much immigrants have done for the country.
But after viewing this film, I've now seen 77 out of the 88 films that have won the Best Picture Oscar - that leaves 11, but I don't have any of those 11 left on my watchlist. I suppose when TCM's Oscar marathon rolls around next February, I'll have to see if I can pick up any of the missing 11 - because I'm so damn close to seeing them all now.
Also starring Jean Arthur (last seen in "Only Angels Have Wings"), Lionel Barrymore (last seen in "Grand Hotel"), Edward Arnold (last seen in "Meet John Doe"), Spring Byington (ditto), Ann Miller (last seen in "Mulholland Dr."), Samuel S. Hinds (last seen in "Call Northside 777"), Donald Meek (last seen in "The Thin Man Comes Home"), Mischa Auer, H.B. Warner (last seen in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town"), Dub Taylor (last seen in "Bandolero!"), Halliwell Hobbes, Mary Forbes (last seen in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"), Ann Doran (also last seen in "Meet John Doe"), Harry Davenport (ditto), Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (last seen in "Gone With the Wind"), Lillian Yarbo, Clarence Wilson, Charles Lane (last seen in "Arsenic and Old Lace"), with cameos from Ward Bond (last seen in "Sergeant York"), John Hamilton, Ian Wolfe (last seen in "Mrs. Miniver").
RATING: 6 out of 10 cans of salmon