Archive for the ‘Frank Capra’ Tag

The Best Holiday Movies Are About Memories   Leave a comment

Turn Your Television On This Month. Please.

December 1, 2016

I’m still a kid. I love the holidays, and one of the things I enjoy this time of year is reliving Thanksgiving and Christmas memories through films. Turkey dinner was the sit-down altar where we communed together as a family. Film is where we see ourselves again or for the first time. Viewing can be particularly enjoyable when watching the film with friends or family, as we have favorite scenes—some in common and some unique to us. After all, memories are about life, real or imagined or some combination of the two. This month I’ve decided to offer you my list of ten films that are worth watching every holiday season, from Thanksgiving Day to New Years Day.

#10: Prancer: This 1989 film features a midwest farmer/single dad, his 9-year old daughter, and a reindeer named Prancer. It has sentimentality but also a first rate realism and charm. Directed by John Hancock Prancer stars Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, and Cloris Leachman. Roger Ebert wrote “[Jessica is] a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn’t a Santa, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did nine-year old Jessica’s mother go when she died?”. Heavy stuff or heady stuff? Either way, you can handle it and feel good about this unusually good holiday treat.

dec-mov-2#9: A Christmas Carol: There have been many film versions adapted from Charles Dickens’ story, but this 1951 version is my favorite. It features Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, and Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley. The story is timeless and worth watching every Christmas. Whether you become tearful or not, it’s a century old story, in a half-century old film, shot in glorious black and white, and it still delivers

#8: Home Alone: Few movie stars have had the ability to be both charming and annoying on screen and in real life, and all before the age of 12. Forget the annoying part. Macaulay Culkin helps drive this 1990 film with sufficient believability as the young child left home by highly distracted parents. Culkin benefits from the direction of Chris Columbus, the writing of John Hughes, and the comedic performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It’s been a quarter century since the film was made yet the basic premise holds up. If it seems like too much work, watch it for Pesci and Stern. The film wouldn’t work without them as the bumbling thieves.

#7: The Santa Clause: Tim Allen’s turn in this 1994 holiday-flavored feature film was a surprisingly good idea. In short, Santa dies on the job, Tim Allen’s character steps in to save the day and discovers that he is now (and forever?) the new Santa Claus. It’s funny with some tugging at the heart. It’s the Twinkie of Christmas movies. Enjoy it and don’t think about the calories. The Washington Post had it right: “The Santa Clause would be another formulaic Christmas special without Tim Allen.”

#6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Not all of the films from National Lampoon have been winners but this 1989 spinoff from the original Vacation is a lot of fun. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as the Griswold parents, along with a new Audrey (Juliet Lewis) and a new Rusty (Johnny Galecki). It’s also worth watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the way-too-hipster next door neighbors “Margo and Todd Chester”. We can watch the film and look back on our fond memories or on the horror of sharing Christmas with the entire family. Good fun.

#5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: No holiday season would be complete without this 1987 film. One of Steve Martin’s better outings, and John Candy is as perfect as he can be. The unlikely twosome becomes mutually dependent as they attempt to travel from New York to Chicago by way of Kansas and Missouri in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. As with most films written and directed by John Hughes, the music is top notch (including Martin’s traumatized “you’re messin’ with the wrong guy”.) The film is wonderful and it always reminds me of how much the world misses John Candy.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street: On the surface this is a film about a nice old man who calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus. Threatened with being declared insane, a young lawyer steps in to defend Kringle, arguing in court that he really is Santa Claus. While Kringle’s sanity is the central theme, the real centerpiece of the 1947 film is about a single mom’s journey (and ours) to have faith, and to believe in something that may be difficult or impossible to prove. While that sounds like religion, the faith here is far more about life itself. But it works on both levels. The cast is a who’s who of post WWII Hollywood faces: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Granville Sawyer, William Frawley, and Jerome Cowan.

#3: The Bishop’s Wife: This 1947 film is also about Christmas and faith. But relax, this is not a film that looks or feels anything like a tent-revival. It’s an intelligent story based on a visiting angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) entering the life of protestant minister Henry Brougham (David Niven), who’s marriage to wife Julia (Loretta Young) is tested along the way. There are numerous religious moments but the film is anything but preachy. There are lofty (sometimes heavenly) goals, a couple of sermons, a boys choir, some shopping, lunch at a French restaurant named Michel’s (of course), a few snobs, and some solid citizens. Sit back and simply let yourself get lost inside this film. Rounding out the cast are Elsa Lanchester, Regis Toomey, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley.

#2: It’s A Wonderful Life: Frank Capra presents the life and times of George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed). In just over two hours, we are treated to their lives and ours. Like the old nursery rhyme, this 1947 film features tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, a rich man and more. As Bailey’s life moves forward, he’s forced to reflect on how he’s helped change things for the better, and with an angel’s help, he sees an alternate version of how his life—or lack thereof—could change everything and mov-no-1everyone. Like other Capra films, this one is rich in characters and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, and H.B. Warner. And for trivia buffs, there is the perfectly-cast voice of Moroni Olsen as Franklin, the never seen senior angel narrating the film.

#1: A Christmas Story: This 1983 film narrowly edged out the others for #1 simply because it speaks to me on so many levels. Instead of just seeing the enjoyable chaos surrounding the lives of the Parker family, I can clearly see my own family growing up in Milwaukee; our version was all Wisconsin, not Indiana. Yet like ‘old man Parker’, my father did swear at the furnace (and other things). I did want a BB gun for christmas. We lived in our version of that neighborhood, on that street, in that house and we had our own Bumpus family for neighbors. And there was plenty of innocent “drama” surrounding our lives as Christmas approached, but there was also the sense of family and time together. I love this film. Regardless of any memories I might like to forget, my reality is of a time when, as Jean Shepherd tells us, “all was right with the world”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen


Becoming Senator Paine   3 comments

November 12, 2003

The Reality Of A Not So Super Committee

Question: How much does a U.S. Senator or Representative earn? Answer: The salary for each is set at $174,000, with leaders (majority, minority, speaker, etc.,) earning as much as another $20,000 for their popularity and, presumably, their expertise.

In 2009 the median personal wealth of our duty-bound senators and representatives rose to almost $1 million ($911,000.) Half of those legislators are millionaires, many of them millionaires one hundred times over (or more). A senator serving a single six-year term can extract $1.2 million dollars from the government. And that doesn’t include the limousines, dining privileges, security, travel, staff, and so on. Depending on the numbers of years they serve the government, legislators can continue to earn 80% of their pay in retirement. No need for calculating those pesky investment rates on their 401Ks or IRAs; and no concerns about the status of Social Security or whether or not it’s a “Ponzi Scheme”.

At this writing the congressional “Super Committee” is floundering as the members attempt to come up with a budget recommendation that is crafted creatively enough to pass both houses of congress. Given the Democrat’s defense of a social safety net, and the Republican’s intransigence on raising taxes, the negotiations are going nowhere. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, is one of the more interesting and palatable people on the Republican side of the aisle. However, this past Thursday, November 10th, Senator Graham took to pandering to the American voting public by suggesting that congress should take a pay cut. “‘If we can’t hit our targets, we need to come up with a new way to find savings,’ Graham told Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Susteren Thursday night. ‘How about cutting congressional pay 10 percent? How about making all of us suffer, not just the Medicare people and the Department of Defense? How about an across-the-board cut, where everybody has to feel some pain if we can’t get our act together?’” Pardon my lack of gratitude Senator, but if your desire is to suffer then really go for recognizable suffering; if you’re going to make a gesture, go for greatness. Commiserate with the 15 million people out of work.

If Senator Graham really wishes to get the attention of his fellow legislators, why not suggest that the Treasury Department completely stop the money transfer from the Federal government to congress. No more salaries for the Senator or his staff? Go out and find some volunteers. Give up your security people? They won’t be necessary since everyone will love you for the grand gesture. No more limos? Try walking or take the bus on your own dime as the District has a wide-reaching transit system. Besides, think of the people-to-people opportunities. No more free travel? Start shopping Kayak or Travelocity for a great fare. And while you’re at it, travel in coach. Moving to the back of the plane will provide you with a greater opportunity to mix with rank-and-file members of society—at least the rank-and-file traveling by plane. And, it will certainly be a different experience than the time spent in those heavy carbon-footprinting private jets, or mingling with others found in the stratosphere of the First Class and Business Class cabins. Hungry? Try packing a lunch and for good measure, close down the congressional dining room. If you want to get the attention of congress and the voters, go big.

The point is, as with most members of congress—from both parties—one must ignore self-aggrandizing pronouncements like the one Senator Graham made on Thursday. Politicians learn quickly, that when all else fails, pontificate. Pander to the voters. When caught in a lie or misdeed, first proclaim your innocence, then profess your ignorance, and finally, redirect the guilt to someone else. (See Herman Cain for details.) Deflect a question instead of answering a question. Offer much, deliver little. Sooner or later the target audience members will all succumb. While he hasn’t converted me to his general political POV, I respect Senator Graham, to the extent that I’ve heard him, observed him, or read about him in the media, but his pay-cut suggestion is a non-starter.

This is not an indictment suggesting that most politicians wish to become corrupt, but rather an observed reality that most politicians appear to be eminently corruptible. Whether to a fractional degree or to the nth degree, corruption is corruption. Their protestations notwithstanding, politicians are malleable to the forces around them. They all too often choose comfort in lieu of principle. Like the fictional Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (at least when compared and contrasted to his fictional protégé Jefferson Smith,) politicians tend to morph into the antithesis of what they were. The idealist is transformed into the surrealist. Their desired image is constantly juxtaposed against who, or what, they really are. Some will declare that they have simply become pragmatists, but that is a cop-out. For others, professing a belief in and adopting a strict adherence to, for example, the theology of Grover Norquist is preferable to free will. Ideology trumps reason.

We often hear of the importance of free will as something that sets humans apart from the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. In short, the concept is that we are allowed to choose, or not:

Harry Frankfurt (1982) presents an insightful and original way of thinking about free will. He suggests that a central difference between human and merely animal activity is our capacity to reflect on our desires and beliefs and form desires and judgments concerning them. I may want to eat a candy bar (first-order desire), but I also may want not to want this (second-order desire) because of the connection between habitual candy eating and poor health. This difference, he argues, provides the key to understanding both free action and free will.

Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus from Princeton, helps us understand our ability as human beings to choose what we perceive is the right path, the right decision. Unfortunately, what we witness daily is a congress that offers fealty to corporations, wealthy individuals, and hard-line ideologues—a trifecta of subservience. Our public servants refuse to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people of America. At the end of the day, our legislators respond to what K Street wants, and not to what Main Street needs. Congress seems to believe that what matters is giving thanks, praise, and compliance to those who funded the last election, and to kneel at the feet of those who will fund the next election. To those in congress, including Senator Graham, instead of offering tokens, offer us something real. The failure of the so-called super committee—if it fails—is a failure of the entire congress. A 10% pay cut? Go cold-turkey and get the attention of everyone in congress by walking away from the money and the perks. Resist the temptation to pander and pontificate and instead make something happen.

Even Frank Capra’s Senator Joe Paine recognized that he had failed ordinary people in favor of greed and giving thanks to the powerful. But that was fiction and this is real life. It would be great to see our senators and representatives work for something larger than themselves, something larger than their own self-interest. Take a break from group-think and become an individual. In the end, even Paine recognized his fall from grace. It’s not too late for the rest of us.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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