Bright Lights Film Journal

God Bless Us Everyone, Including Bankers and Businessmen

They might be learning to be human, too

To the British-made 1951 B&W adaptation of A Christmas Carol Tom Charity in TimeOut’s 2008 Guide says, “Ho-hum-bug.” And it’s unlikely he’d feel any better about the 1989 colorized version, which Tom Keogh commends as the “desert island choice of the many versions.” As a well-balanced Libran, I find both these views of Brian Desmond Hurst’s film perfectly compatible: agreeing with Charity that a “classic” version of the Dickens tale has yet to be made; agreeing with Keogh that — in black and white or colour — Alastair Sims is the best film Scrooge yet.

Meanwhile, as if to fill that gap in the canon spotted by Charity, film lovers often claim It’s a Wonderful Life as the true filmic heir to the Dickens original. Of course, Capra’s George Bailey is not a flinty old curmudgeon in desperate need of spiritual reawakening: by contrast, he’s a community-minded young family man, “discouraged” to the point of forgetting his worth to community and family alike.

Infamously enough, for Capra’s detractors Bailey is an embarrassing figure: despite his nightmarish trials, he’s just too much the pollyanna optimist. In this context, the Hurst/Sims film could come as a pleasant surprise to our more sceptical brethren. Lending an unexpected psychological realism to the story, Hurst dwells on Scrooge’s relationships with those other fiercely competitive businessmen who, for long years, have confirmed his own narrow worldview. From these constantly reinforced, rigidified values he must, in a violent imaginative struggle, rescue himself — if he can. As played by Sims, Scrooge knows it will be hard, perhaps impossible, to break free from his former self and former associates. For Tom Charity, Hurst shows rather too much of Scrooge’s world outside that dim little office where he continually tries — and fails — to crunch the spirit of Bob Cratchit. Lengthy scenes of rich guys scoring points off each other, at dinner or the stock exchange, merely bog us down, don’t they? Yet they’re exactly what we need, I think, if we’re to understand the scale of Scrooge’s efforts and end with something of more than sentimental seasonal appeal.

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In any era, unless as surreal irony, “Pity the Poor Businessman” isn’t an obvious theme for a popular movie. These days it’s almost unthinkable. Nevertheless, in 2011 Alexander Payne not only thought it but, with George Clooney, brought it with much popular success to the screen. Yet for me The Descendants is too anxious to tell us things we should, at any rate, already know: that rich people get terminal cancers; and even when they don’t, money can’t make them immortal. There’s a subplot about the hero extricating himself from pressure to go on being massively greedy like the rest of his clan; and the fact that he wins that fight clearly sways the film’s admirers. For me, though, it’s a classic case of telling not showing, with a lot of sentimental — i.e., not very scientific — stuff about saving the environment thrown in.

Though it doesn’t dig much deeper into psychological or socioeconomic issues, I felt there was something more convincingly insightful about Anne Fletcher’s The Proposal, 2009. In genre terms, it’s a straightforward rom-com; but it’s another attempt to take a serious look at wealth and family values. In it, there’s some well-written, well-acted stuff about the vulnerabilities of social status, especially as they effect what some call the heuristics of our everyday mental processes. This for me makes it the more challenging movie of the two. And if we wanted to make a case for saying the zeitgeist is becoming more maturely pro-feminist, this would do rather nicely, which as a bonus makes it more than just another “Sandra Bullock vehicle.”

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From over forty years ago, when our perception of a dangerously expanding global wealth gap was nowhere near as acute as now, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is another look at wealth and family ties, again taken very much from an insider’s point of view. “Ultimately rather hollow,” said the late lamented Tom Milne. I think this so misses the point (of novel and film) it could top a list of spectacularly point-missing reviews. Of course, we’re all judging from one historic moment or another, and, in 1970, it’s perfectly possible I’d have felt the same disappointment with this late period production from Vittorio de Sica.

Faced with the severely limited range of their everyday interests, we might well feel these two families of rich Jews in early 1940s Ferrara really are a “hollow” bunch. More precisely, even if it takes some time for this to sink in, what we’re seeing are characters absolutely full to bursting point with the minutiae of their own lives. Whether it’s comparing Judaic family rituals, father and son relationships, the trials of young love or those endless games of tennis, what we discover by the end is that, quite unconsciously, all these characters are trying very hard to block awareness of some desperately frightening social developments.

In the year or two in which the story is set, European Fascism morphed from an all-conquering smugness, scarcely bothering to “cleanse” the continent of impurities, to something much more frustrated and aggrieved, having finally met real military obstacles on the Eastern Front. It was at this point that mere anti-Semitic rhetoric began following through its attacks on those least able to protect themselves. Up until then, wealth could often buy off unwanted attention. Not anymore. And it’s at this terrifyingly ominous moment that the film — so “hollow” and so slow-paced — ends.

In fact, given the subject matter, it’s one of the film’s achievements to wrap everything up in a mere hour and a half. Meanwhile, for those who believe that the accumulation of great wealth automatically implies deep layers of practical self-concern, this is not a film offering much support. On the contrary, enormous wealth clearly does not buy second sight or even the humblest of survival instincts. Instead, it can very easily impose the sort of crippling psychological limitations that make Tiny Tim’s physical crutches look like the last word in spiritual empowerment. But don’t tell the pollyanna detectors I said so.