Since we are talking movies and Christmas, Peter Dans has a handy encyclopedia called Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. I talked with him recently about some movies you might be watching this weekend:
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: It’s probably on right now so let’s begin with it: What’s so special about It’s a Wonderful Life?
PETER DANS: Ranked number one in the American Film Institute’s 2006 list of the top 100 most inspiring films, it’s special on many levels. First, the story: a despairing man is saved from suicide on Christmas Eve by a novice guardian angel who shows him how poor the world would have been if he had not lived. Second, the cast and director are superb. Third, it’s an example of a profoundly Christian film with very few Christian overtones. Lastly, the backstory makes it even more special. Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra enlisted in World War II at the height of their fame. Stewart ascended to the rank of brigadier general as a fighter pilot and Capra produced outstanding films showing why we were fighting. After the war, they made what they considered to be their best film and it was a box office failure. Nominated for five Academy Awards, it won none. Their careers suffered. Stewart resurrected his career in Westerns and Hitchcock films and became revered again. Capra never regained the magic touch and was embittered that his work was denigrated by critics like Pauline Kael as “Capracorn.”
By a clerical error (or a twist of fate), the film’s copyright was not renewed in 1974 and it passed into the public domain. Requiring no royalty payments, it began to be shown on television over and over around Christmas. The public was so taken by the film that it’s has become a universal favorite and many view it annually around the Christmas season. Once the copyright was re-established in 1993, television showing of the film was restricted. Happily, for the last years of his life, Capra basked in the acclaim for the film.
LOPEZ: How about Miracle on 34th Street?
DANS: Ranked number nine on that same AFI list, the film is a mixed bag. Its message is that “Faith is believing in something common sense tells you not to.” However, this refers to belief not in God but in Santa in the person of Kris Kringle, a nursing-home resident played with enormous warmth by Edmund Gwenn. This whimsical Christmas staple never mentions Christ, nor pictures a Nativity scene, nor enters a church, nor gives any notion that Santa represents a saint. The irony is that the film criticizes the commercialism of Christmas while at the same time being one long promo for Macy’s and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
LOPEZ: What do you have in mind when you watch Holiday Inn?
DANS: When the film was made in 1942, the country was united by World War II in ways that we saw briefly after 9/11 but, given the current divisiveness, may never see again. It also recalls a time when we celebrated the birth of our two greatest presidents, not presidents generically, including losers. The holidays fell on February 12 and 22, regardless of the day. Now the one holiday is celebrated on a Monday to make a long weekend for selling cars. Finally, the film introduced “White Christmas.” This most famous Christmas song has the distinction of having been written by a Jewish songwriter, Irving Berlin. And, of course, it stars Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby; so what’s not to like.
LOPEZ: Does a good Christian movie have to have Christians in it and be explicitly Christian?
DANS: No. As I noted, It’s a Wonderful Life is a resounding affirmation of the Christian ethic, particularly the principle of self-abnegation, a fancy way of saying putting the needs of others above one’s own. The few Christian overtones include the angels at the film’s beginning, the despairing George Bailey falling on his knees and acknowledging that he is not a praying man but if God’s up there, he asks for his life back and the singing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” at the film’s end — and that’s quite enough. Another example is A Tale of Two Cities in which a dissolute, alcoholic lawyer Sidney Carton played by Ronald Colman stands outside a Midnight Mass service on Christmas Eve and is moved by the strains of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Adeste Fidelis.” He vows to do something noble by giving up his life to save his friend who is the husband of the woman he loves. As he approaches the guillotine, an unseen voice intones: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
LOPEZ: Since your book has come out, what movies have come out that you’d add in one category or another? Is anything changing?
DANS: Yes, things are changing and much of it is owed to The Passion of the Christ which showed that there was a hunger out there for films that were respectful of faith and religion. Clearly, it’s earning over a billion dollars got Hollywood’s attention, if not its respect. Another good development is the birth of Protestant and Catholic groups schooling filmmakers to “put the holy back in Hollywood” by producing not just hagiographic films but more broadly appealing faith-based films with good cinematic values. Some recent films that I would have included are Of Gods and Men, Soul Surfer, There be Dragons, Courageous, Fireproof, The Grace Card, The Rite, The Mighty Macs and The Way. Still, the biggest obstacle has been getting them distributed. Even established stars like Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen had difficulty getting The Way into theaters. Still the pendulum seems to be swinging back.
LOPEZ: Do movies still play the role in culture that they once did when there weren’t so many more visual entertainment options?
DANS: No but they still occupy an important place; Witness people trying to select a DVD from the junk at the Red Box vending machines in the supermarket. I cringe when I see little kids helping to pick these dregs. The problem is that large segments of the public have been turned off by the shallow stories, the explicit sexuality, violence, and profanity as well as the preadolescent bathroom humor of many comedies. Much of what keeps the studios afloat is not the U.S. box office from the niche group they target but the international market, and up to recently, DVDs. If more quality films like The King’s Speech, Secretariat, and Midnight in Paris as well as wholesome children’s films are made, the audience will return.
LOPEZ: Enough negative what Christian classics would you recommend for family viewing this Christmas and why?
DANS: Besides the aforementioned It’s a Wonderful Life and A Tale of Two Cities, I recommend The Bishop’s Wife, a beautifully rendered film with a great cast including Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, and Monty Wooley. It’s another film that did not do well at the box office but has grown in esteem over the years. The sermon at the end about how materialism has overwhelmed the spirit of Christmas is one of the best Christian affirmations in film. Another recommendation is 3 Godfathers, a sentimental allegory of the Nativity and of redemption. Starring John Wayne, it has been called a “Christmas Western” and the most underappreciated of director John Ford’s films.
LOPEZ: How does a medical doctor find so much time for movies?
DANS: I saw a lot of movies before I became a doctor. As I wrote in Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff 1937-1950, I grew up in a cold water flat on Water Street between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. When I was 11,we were relocated to a tenement on Madison Street by Robert Moses to build the Alfred E. Smith Housing project and two years later my extended family was sent to separate housing projects. The trips to the Tribune Theater at Park Row where Pace College is now were like tickets out of the neighborhood and to a broader world. When my parents sent me to La Salle Military Academy in Oakdale, I couldn’t go home on many weekends. Every Saturday, the Brothers would take those who had not accrued too many demerits to the Patchogue Theatre to see the latest film. When I was on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical Center in the 1970s, I took time to start a children’s series and an adult series. That was a time before VCRs and DVDs when movies came and left quickly or not at all. In 1990 when I began writing The Physician at the Movies column for Pharos, the quarterly journal of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, I got to see more movies. That’s when I got interested in the arc of Hollywood’s portrayal of doctors and wrote my first book at age 62 Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah!. Oddly enough, now that I am retired I watch fewer films because I have been turned off by much of what is being produced but has