- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Good will and spiritual reaffirmation are essential characteristics of Christmas fables, but they seldom preclude bumpy rides or perverse streaks of humor on the path to happy endings. Consider those perennial movie classics of the middle 1940s: Preston Sturges’ uproarious Nativity farce “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and Frank Capra’s supernatural tearjerker “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Now available in lightly supplemented DVD editions, the films originated at separate stylish studios, Paramount in the case of the former and RKO in the latter.

“Morgan’s Creek” and “Wonderful Life” are portraits of small-town family life and turmoil that conclude with jubilant Christmas Eve rescues or vindications of the principal characters. Each scenario involves an extended flashback chronicle, covering a whirlwind nine months in “Morgan’s Creek” and 26 eventful years in “Wonderful Life.”

Although both movies reflect the expertise of master humorists, they illustrate a contrast in tone and emphasis. Verbal and physical hilarity predominate in “Morgan’s Creek,” where Mr. Sturges orchestrates the struggle of unwed Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) to persuade a lovelorn dupe, Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), to accompany her to the altar in time to legitimize a pregnancy whose origins remain hazy.

Conception must have occurred the night Trudy suffered an amnesia-inducing conk on the cranium while dancing patriotically with numerous departing soldiers stationed near Morgan’s Creek. She can’t recollect a probable father or decisive interlude of intimacy. Despite his lamentable 4-F status, Norval proves the ideal panicky replacement to share a conjugal future with Trudy. Invoking Shakespeare, Mr. Sturges regards his overwhelmed comic hero as a lovable sap who has “greatness thrust upon him.”

Sincere romantic and domestic sentiments provide Preston Sturges with useful contrasts, and he knows how to manipulate subdued or tender episodes. But inspired wordplay and horseplay fuel the movie. The first scene begins with a minor character shouting, “Hold the presses.” Off and running at the outset, “Morgan’s Creek” seldom slackens.

The proportions are reversed in Mr. Capra’s film, which is predicated on a grave emotional crisis and needs to reconcile a decent, responsible family man, James Stewart’s George Bailey, to his destiny as a small-town bulwark, a role that suits everything except his imagination, starved for travel and adventure since boyhood. Comic interplay is a constant in “Wonderful Life,” but it remains subordinate to the task of saving a seriously demoralized protagonist. At bottom, George needs to be saved from himself, or the self-pitying side of his nature that overrates what he hasn’t been able to accomplish at the expense of the virtues he has demonstrated: loyalty, sacrifice, shouldering obligations.

The movie’s belated popularity as a Christmas perennial in the 1970s — when a lapsed copyright left it free to be shown on every television station that secured a print, presentable or ragged — may be traced to a backlash against the sprawling downside of personal “liberation” movements. The bloom was certainly off New Hedonism by 1974, when “Wonderful Life” blundered prematurely into the public domain. While sympathizing with George’s sense of lost opportunities in Bedford Falls, spectators had plenty of incentive to count the blessings associated with preserving family, professional and community ties.

Although George and his clever, steadfast spouse Mary (Donna Reed in her admirable ingenue period) are intelligent and perceptive characters, there’s a sense in which they echo the screwball romance of Trudy and Norval. In each match it’s the woman who calls the decisive shots, confirming folk wisdom about the way things really work when mating rituals get serious.

Trudy’s impulses and ruses leave Norval prodigiously overmatched. It’s just as well that he’s a farcical pawn in everyone’s grasp. His lack of self-confidence and self-esteem make surrender his only dignified option. Although a reluctant and sorely abused father figure, at least he hits the jackpot.

A reluctant suitor and frustrated family man in certain respects, George Bailey cannot fall back on ignorance or helplessness as defenses, but he is the weaker emotional vessel. George needs Mary to clarify things at crucial junctures — for example, when compelled to choose between renouncing her as a sweetheart or his far less tangible dreams of glory. Ultimately, she also rescues him from despair. The best semi-conscious joke of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that Mary has to be working behind the scenes to rally friends and family around her suicidally despondent husband. No Mary, no happy ending.

From turning point to turning point in the plot, Mary’s imperatives appear to be the soundest choice for George himself. Ultimately, what the women want and need governs the seriocomic outcomes of both “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You could almost believe that the filmmakers have been lured into illustrating a cosmic jest: the futility of resisting the Life Force. Norval Jones and George Bailey have little in common except their destiny as sublimely outwitted husbands.

TITLE: “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1944, decades before the advent of the rating system; recurrent sexual innuendo in a farcical context)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Preston Sturges. Cinematography by John F. Seitz. Art direction by Hans Dreier and Ernest Fegte. Editing by Stuart Gilmore. Music by Leo Shuken and Charles Bradshaw

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

DVD EDITION: Paramount Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.paramount.com/homeentertainment

TITLE: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1946; episodes of intense domestic or emotional conflict; morbid plot elements)

CREDITS: Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Mr. Capra, with additional scenes by Jo Swerling, based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern and earlier screenplay drafts by Marc Connelly, Clifford Odets and Dalton Trumbo. Cinematography by Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc. Art direction by Jack Okey. Editing by William Hornbeck. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes

DVD EDITION: Paramount Home Entertainment

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