Friday 29 December 2023


 Over the last decade, the Christmas season in the Donovan home in St Ives on the Penwith peninsula has been celebrated in the evenings with the viewing of our special collection of film. We are celebrating the birth of the subversive carpenter-turned-preacher called Jesus - the Nazarene Jew whose message is God is Love and that the pursuit of money is the pathway to losing that Love. 

Films are a capitalist invention. They are intended to make money. Yet they need to appeal and, even as the traumas of horrific world wars in the last century led to very many of the masses losing whatever faith they had, people still resonated with the messages of love and redemption that script writers conjured up for viewers, not least at Christmas.

Our Christmas film festival begins with the viewing over three evenings of the adaptation of John Masefield's story: 'The Box of Delights', a BBC children's film first shown in six parts in 1984. Directed by Rennie Rye who was at Catz, Oxford reading English from 1967-1970 at the same time as I was failing to read as much History as I should have done, this is a delightful imagining of the triumph of good over evil. The Christmas church service becomes a reality despite all the wickedness that is conjured up to prevent it happening. Society is saved from the greed and ambition of people whose egos have gone awry. The goodness of children, helped by some wondrous magic, in the end wins the day.

Christmas magic for children and adults - the whole family!

The screen writers for Christmas film have no time for the excesses of capitalism, even if they are not consciously shaped by a Marxist insight. The love of money is, of course, the root of all evil. Film maybe part of the market society but it is also a vehicle for criticizing the direction that people within

that society have taken - and enabling redemption and a return to a saner way that brings more contentment. 

Our next film is The Holly and the Ivy, directed by George More O'Ferrall and released in 1952. Ralph Richardson plays the widowed country parson whose three children return to the snow-clad Norfolk parsonage for Christmas to confront buried family business. One daughter returns from London where she works as a fashion journalist; one of her secrets is that she is on the edge of becoming an alcoholic. She hates the falsity of her London scene; for her society has taken the wrong direction. A decade and a half before the sixties reaction against concealment and hypocrisy burst into play and shaped my life, this film covers so many of the issues that surface when the truth-telling starts. 

A remarkable film!

Then comes The Bishop's Wife. Directed by Henry Koster and released in 1947, it stars Cary Grant as the angel Dudley and David Niven as Henry, the bishop. Loretta Young is the bishop's wife. Bishop Henry is determined to build a magnificent new cathedral in his US city and is now in danger of losing his way. He is valuing money and ambition more than ordinary people or even his wife. Dudley is the answer to his prayers at Christmas - and more than a match for Mrs. Hamilton, the wealthy parishioner who will provide the funds for the creation of the cathedral provided it is built as a memorial to her late husband. Mrs. Hamilton comes to see the Light and her money is donated to the needy poor. The bishop finds other funds from the sale of a newly discovered and exceptionally rare Roman coin - and rekindles his loving relationship with his wife. Dudley has worked his festive magic. The acting, the direction, and the script are a joy. The love of money and the excesses of capitalism take another hit. 

Cary Grant and Loretta Young - the angel and the bishop's wife - by the Christmas tree that has been decorated with angelic magic by Dudley.

And so to You Can't Take It with You, directed by the inimitable Frank Capra and striking gold in 1938. It cost around $1.6 million dollars to create and made $2.1 million dollars in the USA and $5.3 million dollars around the world. Last year, I devoted a blogpost to this magnificent movie. 

From 1934, Capra started using his films to convey messages to the public who were now flocking to the movie theatres. Some call it Capra-corn; others, more kindly, a Capra-esque quality. We are firmly in the latter camp. Here is Capra, explaining his intention:

'My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.'  

You have to be cocksure in an American way to pull off that kind of role as a Christian prophet in a movie-director's chair with a spell-bound cinema audience running into the tens of millions. Capra's films now became as much about themes as about people. 

Capra - the Director Extraordinaire

As for the themes that were now emerging in his work, the film writer, Richard Griffith, describes it thus:

'A messianic innocent ... pits himself against the forces of entrenched greed. His inexperience defeats him strategically, but his gallant integrity in the face of temptation calls for the goodwill of the "little people", and through their combined protest, he triumphs'.

That's a basic Capra theme and each movie has its own take on that theme. His films resonate with a message that human nature, deep down, is basically good. We need to believe in the value of unselfishness. Redemption for those who stray from the path of goodness is always possible. You Can't Take It With You is a frantic unbelievable frolic which is still able to bring to life and explore deep discords in the American way of life. The most successful and selfish banker in town, Anthony P. Kirby, played by Edward Arnold, is the epitome of the capitalist fat cat - yet he is a father too who has feelings of tenderness towards his son. Kirby, senior, is granted an epiphany moment by Capra and Riskin, the scriptwriter. He abandons his plans to buy up the block of houses in which Grandpa and family live. Kirby, junior, is able to marry the love of his life, Grandpa's grand-daughter - and everything ends happily with all the cast sitting around the family table, sharing a meal. A good, wholesome ending. 

Yes, that's the Capra-corn - but what insights spill out on the way! The viewing public have their feel-good ending but they also have those minutes en route which confront them with the iniquities of unregulated capitalism, if they choose to listen. Riskin was a left-of-centre kind of guy; Capra, however, was a conservative Republican who was opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal, no government intervention for him - but that did not prevent him from giving a voice to those who could see something was rotten in the system. Yet Capra was convinced by the American myth - that good would always prevail; the corruption would be rooted out by the good guys and through them American individualism would triumph. 

One of the final frames from You Can't take It With You - Grandpa is saying grace as the banking family and his own family of American individual eccentrics share that communal meal - Capra returned to the Catholic church in his later years after being what he called a 'Christmas Catholic' in his early adulthood.


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