Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On Christmas Eve

What does an Orthodox Jew do on Christmas Eve? The tradition in the Myers household is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Yesterday, in a Newsweek “web exclusive,” University of Chicago law professor Andrew M. Rosenfeld offered some “mortgage lessons” from Capra’s film. His conclusion? The film is “a reminder of a simpler time, and simultaneously a stark reflection of what went wrong in the current crisis.” Oh, boy.

Needless to say, that’s not the lesson that Capra and his script writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett intend to hammer home. They are quite explicit about it. (Goodrich and Hackett, by the way, are the ones who turned Anne Frank’s dagboek into The Diary of Anne Frank. More on that in a moment.) You will recall that, in the film’s last scene, after he is rescued from scandal, prison, and financial ruin by his friends in Bedford Falls, George Bailey finds the angel Clarence’s copy of Huckleberry Finn among the many small contributions of those who rushed to his aid. The book is inscribed with Capra’s message: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

According to the financially astute and hard-edged Henry Potter, that is precisely what places the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan at financial risk. “You take this loan here to Ernie Bishop. You know, the fellow who sits around all day on his brains in his taxi.” The bank turned him down, but Bailey Brothers loaned him $5,000 for a home. “I handled that,” George volunteers. “I can personally vouch for his character.” “Friend of yours?” “Yes, sir.” “You see,” Potter concludes, “if you shoot pool with some employee here you can come and borrow money.” Sounds like Sen. Christopher Dodd and Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, except that a taxi driver is no senator.

Pace Rosenfeld, there are no mortgage lessons to derive from It’s a Wonderful Life. In his defense, he is not the only one trying to yank an inappropriate economic message from a classic film this Christmas season. At the Dissent site, Nicolaus Mills of Sarah Lawrence College crows that George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street is a “Christmas story that we [at Dissent] can’t get enough of,” because in it “the Christmas spirit triumphs over commercialism and doubt.” No, the film is about sophisticated modern efforts, through professional psychiatry or the snobbery of those who know better, to translate faith into psychosis or a fairy tale. Commercialism has nothing to do with it, unless you are on the lookout for every opportunity you can find to bash capitalism.

There is a deeper problem with both It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, and it’s the same reason they can be watched on Christmas Eve by Orthodox Jews and celebrated in Dissent by graying socialists. The films have been almost entirely de-Christianized. As far as I can tell, Christ’s name sounds only in a carol at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. And Fred Gailey succeeds in proving that Kris Kringle actually is Santa Claus only because he does not undertake the more difficult case of proving that God was once incarnated in a flesh-and-blood man who is no longer around to be prodded, examined, questioned, and smiled at.

I don’t know much about Valentine Davies, the author of Seaton’s script. His biography suggests an accomplished Hollywood hack who was able competently to handle ’most any assignment from baseball fantasy (It Happens Every Spring) to bio-pic (The Glenn Miller Story). The de-Christianizing of It’s a Wonderful Life really should come as no surprise, though, once you learn that Goodrich and Hackett wrote the script. Eight years later their stage play The Diary of Anne Frank would invent an almost entirely de-Judaized Anne. She delivers the playwrights’ message in her third-to-last speech:

I know it’s terrible, trying to have any faith . . . when people are doing such horrible . . . But you know what I sometimes think? I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was with Mother. It’ll pass, maybe not for hundreds of years, but some day . . . I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.1In the original dagboek, however, the passage was strikingly different. In the entry of Saturday, July 15, 1944, reviewing a book with “the challenging title What Do You Think of the Modern Young Girl?” she writes,It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.But she does not stop there, as she does in the play. She goes on:It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.2Her belief in the goodness of people—her faith that “this cruelty too shall end”—is not some vague, abstract, universal sentiment. It is an act of Jewish defiance in the face of a state-sponsored campaign to destroy the Jews.

Imagine a Christmas film as firmly sunk in the local circumstances of an actual Christian’s life. Almost as many Jews and socialists would not see it as did not see The Passion of the Christ.

1. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, The Diary of Anne Frank (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 168. Ellipses in the original.

2. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, definitive ed., trans. Susan Massotty (New York: Doubleday, 1995), p. 332.