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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Endings (originally published 12/94)

Somewhere along the way, happy endings fell into disrepute in the movie business. They're considered corny, facile, and unpardonably naive. To state the matter bluntly, in certain critical circles a happy ending is considered to be the last resort of a hack who just isn't creative enough to come up with a proper ending.

The lone exception is Frank Capra, who built virtually his entire distinguished career on happy endings. The result has been that nearly all subsequent feel-good movies have tended to be lumped into the same category -- an all-purpose critical dustbin labeled "Failed Capra Imitations." That's what happened this year to the relentlessly panned "Trapped in Paradise."

My contention, however, is that there is nothing inherently wrong with happy endings. It's just that there is a right way and a wrong way to do them, and almost everyone these days does them the wrong way. Frank Capra didn't have a magic touch. He just knew what he was doing.

What Capra understood is that happy endings have to be earned. Think of the ending of "It's a Wonderful Life," for instance. We can believe that all those townsfolk would shower George Bailey with money because Capra has very carefully shown each individual being helped by George during the course of the film.

Capra also understood that we will accept a radiant burst of optimism at the end of a movie only if the bulk of the story maintains a sternly unromanticized undertow. Again, look at "It's a Wonderful Life." The ending may be warm and fuzzy, but during the two hours or so leading up to it Capra has picked that little town apart with a gimlet eye, exposing all manner of pettiness and small-minded iniquity among its citizenry. By holding sentiment in abeyance, Capra makes us hunger for it. When the sentimental flood gates open in the last five minutes, then, we are too grateful to be put off by it.

If you're one of the many who have been disappointed by "Trapped in Paradise," and you want to see how feel-good movies ought to be done, you should know that "It's a Wonderful Life" is just the beginning of the Capra titles available on home video. Here are some others to look for.

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936). Gary Cooper stars as Longfellow Deeds, an eccentric but goodhearted fellow who inherits $20 million from a rich uncle. Having no use for the money himself, he resolves to give it away in the form of land and livestock to needy people who are willing to work a farm. There's a happy ending, but much of the film is deeply cynical, rubbing our noses in the machinations of greed and betrayal at work to thwart Deeds in his altruistic aspirations. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is a promotional trailer for a re-release of the film.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). When a U.S. senator dies unexpectedly, the political bosses who pulled his strings must decide who should be appointed to serve out his term. They pick Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a local scoutmaster with no political experience. Smith is a wide-eyed, naive patriot who reveres Washington, D.C. and believes in the wisdom and nobility of its elected officials, so the political bosses figure that he will be easy to manipulate. By the time we get to the happy ending, Capra has taken a hard-edged look at political corruption that "60 Minutes" would be proud of.

"State of the Union" (1948). Having already skewered political officeholders, Capra shifted his focus with this film to the campaigns by which politicians attain their positions. Again, his viewpoint is tough-minded and unsparing. Spencer Tracy plays Grant Matthews, a prosperous and idealistic industrialist who allows himself to be persuaded to run for president. Early on in his campaign his straight talk endears him to the voters. Soon, however, he finds himself constrained by the fat cats who actually deliver the votes. Before Capra mercifully grants us our happy ending, we must watch this likable, intelligent man reduced to parroting the words of greedy and cynical political handlers.

Of course, there are always those who can't stand happy endings even when they are done properly. Some critics of Capra's time sneered at his work, calling it "Capra-corn." I can't tell you their names, because posterity has chosen to erase them from its page. The name of Frank Capra, on the other hand, is engraved there forever. Now that's a happy ending.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Funny, You Don't Look Bigoted (originally published 10/92)

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for socially conscious movies. Even the ones that aren’t so good deserve some points for having their hearts in the right places, it seems to me. In this most expensive and therefore most bottom line driven of all art forms, it takes a special kind of fortitude to approach the ticket buying public with cautionary tales and jeremiads.

That’s why I plan to buy a ticket to see a film called “School Ties,” and why I will want very much to like it. It tells the story of a Jewish boy trying to cope with the vicious anti-Semitism of his classmates at a private school during the 1950s. Considering the fact that most of the entrepreneurs who founded the American film industry were Jewish, it’s surprising how few films down through the years have confronted the problem of anti-Semitism. Still, there are a few. Here are some of the better ones.

“Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947). Director Elia Kazan’s film version of the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, although no longer the bombshell it was when initially released, nevertheless remains potent. Gregory Peck plays a magazine feature writer who has been assigned to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism. Searching for a unique slant for his articles, he hits upon the idea of posing as a Jew for six weeks to see if people act differently toward him. He is utterly unprepared for the drastic changes in his life that are brought about by the simple act of changing the name on his mailbox from “Green” to “Greenberg.” Even the woman with whom he has recently become romantically involved behaves differently toward him.

“Crossfire” (1947). Released the same year as “Gentleman’s Agreement,” this dark and brooding little picture features Robert Ryan as a soldier whose hatred of Jews leads him to commit murder. We watch in horror as he flies into a rage at an inoffensive Jewish man who is seated next to him in a bar. Unwilling or unable to contain his irrational hatred, he ultimately picks a fight with this perfect stranger and beats him to death. The remainder of the film focuses on the police investigation of the crime. One thing puzzles the investigators: the lack of any apparent motive. As the investigation proceeds, they slowly come to the awful realization that this was a crime of pure hatred, having nothing to do with the victim as an individual. For a sampling of how raw the bigotry is, and how nakedly the film portrays it, have a look at the film's promotional trailer, reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

“The Great Dictator” (1940). In his first talking picture, Charlie Chaplin decided to satirize Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. Chaplin himself plays two roles, one as Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania, and one as a little Jewish barber. Hynkel, like Hitler, persecutes the Jews, including our barber friend. Despite the fact that this is a comedy, Chaplin did not shrink from portraying the cruelty of the oppressors in scenes of straight drama.

“Cabaret” (1972). Bob Fosse’s film version of the Broadway musical stars Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey. The main story line chronicles the odd relationship between a writer and an eccentric cabaret singer. The setting is Berlin during the 1930s, a time when no one was sure yet how seriously to take the Nazi party, with their funny little stiff-arm salute. An important subplot involves a Jewish couple who are victimized by the Nazis. By the end of the film, it is clear that those who thought the Nazis were a joke have made a tragic error in judgment. “Cabaret” is based on an earlier (non-musical) film called “I Am a Camera” (1955), which in turn was based on Christopher Isherwood’s book “Goodbye to Berlin.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971). The musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the milkman and the small Russian village of Anatevka is set before the Russian Revolution, when the Czar was still in power. The Jews of Anatevka therefore live under the constant threat of a mass execution, or pogrom, as they were called. The Czar or his officials could order a pogrom at any time, for strategic purposes or just on a whim. Interestingly, the local officials of the Czar, who live in Anatevka along with the Jews, seem sympathetic to them. Feeling no personal enmity, they are “just following orders.” In some ways, this is anti-Semitism at its most frightening.

The collective message of these films is that intolerance is forever busy. It’s good to know that some filmmakers are still about the business of keeping us reminded.