May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life . Once this gloomy fantasy was actually underrated, before it was adopted by television as an inevitable feature of “holiday programming,” America’s answer to A Christmas Carol . In many ways Capra’s best and most ambitious film, it is also meretricious in a way that A Christmas Carol is not. Nothing in Dickens’s presentation of the horrors of England is altered by the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge, but It’s a Wonderful Life manages to reduce its unforgettably hellish vision of modern America to nothing more than a cautionary dream sequence. Don’t worry, we are told; what is really real is the patently phony outpouring of good cheer and monetary donations that saves the day in the last reel. Happy endings are Hollywood business as usual, but Capra’s finale has a ponderousness that indicates we are to take it a good deal more seriously than Fred and Ginger uniting at the fadeout. In every way It’s a Wonderful Life appears to have been the model for the hectoring sentimentality that afflicts so much contemporary studio filmmaking.
Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent . Probably best known for being the first Hollywood film to depict a gay bar (sinister shadows and Frank Sinatra on the jukebox) and the last to feature Charles Laughton (magnificent in the ostensibly caricatural role of an old-guard Southern Democrat), Advise and Consent is also the only American film to address seriously the mechanics of democratic government. Along the way the script works in nuclear threat, McCarthyism, homosexuality, perjury, blackmail, and suicide, before dissolving its conflicts in a clear affirmation that, after all, the system works. Despite the conservative bent of Alien Drury’s source novel, Advise and Consent remains for the most part warily neutral in its allocation of moral responsibility. With its faith in complex systems, whether narrative or bureaucratic, to work things out, it stands at the end of an era, in terms both of politics and of filmmaking. Against all odds, Preminger, here at the peak of his directorial abilities, succeeded in making a film of novelistic density, in which the real star is the political structure within which the individual characters go to their separate ends.