Most people’s favorite Christmas movies probably include the 1946 drama It’s a Wonderful Life and the 1954 musical White Christmas. On Dec. 20, 2008, I had the heartwarming privilege of seeing a big screen double feature of these two holiday classics at the Michigan Theater (It’s a Wonderful Life) and the Redford Theatre (White Christmas).
During my evening visit to the Redford, as I enjoyed the movie, miniature train set, Christmas tree, and other holiday pleasures, I also cherished the fresh memories of my afternoon visit to the Michigan. The fullness of that moment, as both past and present came together, was a rich, satisfying experience.
Christmas melodies from Barton theater organs delighted crowds at both showplaces, thanks to Steve Warner at the Michigan and 13-year-old Emily Seward at the Redford. Beautiful Christmas trees adorned each theater.
Both films showed how a caring community could revive the spirits of someone they valued, simply by showing how much they appreciated them (James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, and Dean Jagger in White Christmas). The movies covered the years 1919 to 1954, overlapping during that emotional time (1944-46) when World War II was ending and the postwar era was beginning.
In an interesting piece of trivia, one actor appeared in both movies. Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in the Our Gang comedies, played Donna Reed’s rejected dance partner in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the brother of Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas.
And both films ended on Christmas Eve, with a cozy round of group singing that led to “The End” and left both theater audiences with a warm glow of the holiday spirit.
A Wonderful Christmas Movie
It’s a Wonderful Life celebrates community values, and before this Christmas classic began, Michigan Theater Executive Director Russ Collins talked about the Ann Arbor area support that has kept the Michigan in business.
Russ said that the Michigan, which was saved 30 years ago by the citizens of Ann Arbor, could not survive without contributions like donations and sponsorships. He also encouraged the audience “to support anything in the community you value,” like homeless shelters, food banks, and other “quality of life” services.
Soon the lights dimmed, and we once again joined George Bailey of Bedford Falls on his journey of frustration and fulfillment. The big screen brings out the emotions of this well-known story much more powerfully than a television showing, thanks in great part to director Frank Capra’s skillful handling of the expressive faces of the different cast members. Several extreme closeups of a frustrated James Stewart were particularly gripping.
Look at all those friendly, familiar faces, I thought as I watched the movie. It featured many performers from the Golden Age of supporting actors, including Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Gloria Grahame, Ward Bond, and Henry Travers. Current Ann Arbor resident Ginny Moss (then known as Virginia Patton) played Harry Bailey’s wife Ruth.
For the first time, I really noticed the theme of Donna Reed and James Stewart looking at each other, in profile, with their different heights adding variety to the image. The repetition of this theme outlines the movie—at the high school dance; at Mary’s home during the dramatic marriage proposal; when Mary tells George that she’s pregnant; in the fantasy sequence when George confronts Mary near the library; on the staircase of the Bailey home after George returns from his journey with Clarence the Angel; and at the very end of the movie, by the Christmas tree.
And Donna Reed’s powerful performance hit me more strongly than ever before. Most of her best moments came in reaction shots—at the dance when she first sees James Stewart; the “Welcome home, Mr. Bailey” moment on the wedding night; looking out the back window of the taxi cab at James Stewart as he runs down the street to prevent a run on the savings and loan; and at the very end, crying tears of joy at the generosity of her neighbors.
It’s a Wonderful Life had some significant relevance to modern times. Much of the movie concerns the different approaches by Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart to moneylending for home ownership. As I watched the movie, I wondered, which philosophy would be most practical in 2008, when failed mortgages have stained the economy?
But the bad economic times didn’t prevent me from spending money in other downtown Ann Arbor businesses besides the Michigan. I shopped for Christmas gifts; enjoyed a hot drink in a coffee shop; and had some dinner. If It’s a Wonderful Life hadn’t been playing at the Michigan, all of that money would have been spent elsewhere.
White Christmas Time in the City
During the intermission of White Christmas at the Redford, I relaxed on a cushioned seat at the top of one of the staircases of the inner lobby. From that vantage point, I could take in much of the energy of the Redford, including the Barton organ music from the auditorium and the friendly crowd sounds rising from the concession stand area. Also, I enjoyed the sights of the finely painted wood; the inner lobby chandeliers (formerly at the old Oriental/RKO Downtown theater); and people relaxing and talking in the intimate aisleway on the lobby side of the balcony.
As I soaked in this atmosphere of pure escapism, Redford volunteer Allen Fitzgerald walked past me, stopping for a moment to talk to me in a very excited and happy voice about the large crowd that showed up that evening. My experience with that large turnout started on the streets outside the Redford, where I had to search for a good parking spot, as the many patrons trudged through the slush of the recent heavy snowfall towards the welcoming glow of the Redford’s marquee.
Inside the theater, the audience spread throughout all sections of the auditorium. Before and after the movie, and during intermission, many visitors crowded around the skillfully detailed miniature train village that is an annual treat for Redford moviegoers. From the balcony, I looked down on the train set, and watched people talk and point, as if reliving good memories. The vibrant colors of the auditorium powerfully complemented the sparkle and wonder of the Christmas decorations.
During the movie, the strong laughter of the crowd, and its applause for several dance numbers (“The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” “Sisters” (the Crosby/Kaye version), and “Mandy”) added significantly to the soundtrack of the movie. When I first saw “White Christmas” at the Redford about 10 years ago, it was one of those magical evenings when I felt like I was seeing a familiar classic for the first time.
The intermission was timed perfectly, just as Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney finished their “Count Your Blessings” duet. As the stage curtains closed, the lights came up on the Christmas tree and the train set. Out in the front lobby, visitors had their picture taken with Santa Claus, who rewarded them with a red styrofoam nose that would have made Rudolph proud. The intermission ended with organist Emily Seward playing “White Christmas.”
And at the very end of the movie, as the camera panned across the ski lodge audience singing “White Christmas,” many in the Redford audience joined in, creating another uniquely magic moment in the 80-year history of this movie palace. As patrons filed out, Redford volunteers handed out candy canes as they wished their loyal supporters a Merry Christmas.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.