Season's screenings at the Senator


`Wonderful Life,' `Christmas Carol' unwrapped again

Film Column

November 28, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A Baltimore Christmas-season tradition continues this weekend with showings of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol at the Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road.

It would be hard to go wrong seeing either, even if it would be for the umpteenth time. Life, Frank Capra's 1945 classic, is simply one of the most honestly emotional films ever made, as small-town banker George Bailey comes to realize that riches have nothing to do with fame or profit, everything to do with treating your fellow man right.

James Stewart, in his first film role after returning from World War II, is sturdily magnificent as Bailey, who's too busy wallowing in self-pity to see how wonderful his life really is. Threatened with bankruptcy, fed up with the small-town ties that have continually thwarted his big plans, he's on the brink of suicide when an apprentice angel named Clarence shows up to steer him right.

Capra's casting of Stewart, one of his favorite stars, couldn't have been more perfect; the actor came with an onscreen persona perfectly tailored for such a role (although he'd spend much of the later years of his career subverting that persona in the name of appearing more menacing).

A young Donna Reed glows as Bailey's long-time love interest, Mary Hatch, while Lionel Barrymore scowls charismatically as the evil Mr. Potter, a wheelchair-bound banker who's everything George Bailey stands four-square against.

While It's a Wonderful Life certainly ends on an optimistic note (including a toast from George's younger brother that's guaranteed to melt even the coldest of hearts), it's far from the happiest film ever made. Capra was a smart enough director to realize that schmaltz works only when it's leavened with a touch of evil, and there's certainly an undercurrent of gloom to this most revered of cinematic heart-warmers.

The picture of a George Bailey-less Bedford Falls is bleak in the extreme, suggesting Capra and the screenwriters meant their film to be as much a warning about where America was headed as a celebration of what it could be, if only people led with both their hearts and their heads, instead of ignoring the former altogether.

A Christmas Carol, made in Britain in 1951, stars Alastair Sim in what nearly everyone regards as the definitive screen version of Charles Dickens' novel. Watch especially the transformation of Sim's Ebenezer Scrooge from humbugging skinflint to Christmas reveler; if that doesn't put one in mind for a joyous holiday season, nothing will.

Screenings of It's a Wonderful Life are set for Sunday at 11 a.m., 3:45 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., with A Christmas Carol showing the same day at 1:45 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Admission is $3 cash or $3 worth of nonperishable food. All proceeds will be donated to the Maryland Food Bank.

Jewish Film Series

The Columbia Jewish Congregation has announced the line-up for its 12th Jewish Film Series. God Is Great kicks things off on Jan. 24. It's a French comedy from 2000 starring Audrey Tautou as a Parisian model who falls for a veterinarian and converts to his religion: Judaism.

The series continues on Feb. 21 with a documentary double-bill: From Swastika to Jim Crow (1999), about German Jewish refugees down South, and A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma (2002), about the Eastern European immigrants who settled in Petaluma, Calif. (Film buffs, take note: They included the family of movie critic Pauline Kael.)

The CJC slate reaches a high point on March 20 with the Israeli thriller Time of Favor (2000), which hinges on a potential suicide bomber - not a Palestinian but the star Yeshiva pupil of a West Bank zealot.

The series concludes on April 17 with two music-themed documentaries: Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots (2001), in which a bunch of Elvis-loving Canadian Jews visit Graceland, and Song of a Jewish Cowboy (2002), a portrait of Yiddish singing cowpoke Scott Gerber.

Showtime: 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $24 for all four films; $20 for three; $14 for two; $8 for individual films. Mail a check made out to CJC with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to CJC Film Series, c/o S. Bloch, 6514 Quiet Hours, Columbia, MD 21045. For more information, call 410-381-4809.

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