Riding Spirituality Trend, Angels Revisit Hollywood

Angels are back in style on the wide screen.

John Travolta plays one in "Michael," the film about a down-to-earth archangel who visits our world because he's entranced by its beauty.

Denzel Washington plays another in "The Preacher's Wife," about a heavenly visitor whose mission is to help a clergyman with an ambitious church-building project and soothe the spirits of the minister's neglected wife.

Neither movie is a masterpiece. "Michael" is too gimmicky for its own good, relying on one-note jokes about the hero's fondness for profane pleasures as he accompanies three tabloid reporters on a trip through the American countryside. "The Preacher's Wife" is too long and lazy, spinning an appealing yarn - based on "The Bishop's Wife," an eccentric 1947 comedy with Cary Grant in the angelic role - but building little excitement outside Whitney Houston's musical numbers.

Still, both movies show refreshing interest in spiritual dimensions outside the day-to-day material world, reminding us that twisters and first-wives' clubs and bug-eyed martians aren't the only subjects Hollywood can try on for size.

Whatever the future holds for angel-centered cinema, at least one classic from the past is holding its own in critical esteem and mass-audience adulation. "It's a Wonderful Life" has just sailed through its 50th anniversary with no sign of flagging popularity.

Moviegoers haven't always embraced Frank Capra's dark comedy, which stars James Stewart as a man so unhappy that it takes a hard-working angel - determined to "earn his wings" by doing a good deed - to save him from suicide and renew his faith in the value of his existence.

Audiences stayed home when it premired in 1946, and Academy Award voters preferred "The Best Years of Our Lives," perhaps because William Wyler's drama probed a timely subject - problems of adjustment in the wake of a traumatic war - that seemed more immediate than Capra's fantastic fable. In any case, "It's a Wonderful Life" lost more than a half-million dollars (real money a half-century ago!) and went down in ledgers as a flop.

That might have been the end of the story if not for a clerical error that allowed the studio's copyright to lapse. This meant any television channel - or, in later years, video outlet - could present the picture free of charge. PBS stations began using it for low-budget holiday programming, and soon commercial TV picked up the idea.

A new generation of viewers found it more congenial than their parents had, and word-of-mouth enthusiasm started to spread. The movie acquired a cult following, then a growing movie-buff audience, and finally the classic status that it still enjoys today.

Does the film deserve its lofty reputation? The answer is yes, but it's important to note that its resonance stems less from the tale itself - a sentimental trifle, first written as an anecdote for Christmas cards - than from the complexity of Capra's vision.

One reason for the movie's initial failure may be that it was too unconventional for mid-'40s audiences, who were less accustomed than later viewers to devices like out-of-focus photography, extended flashback and fantasy sequences, and even a freeze-frame before that term was invented.

Then too, the plot is far darker than a bare-bones summary might suggest. It begins with the hero, George Bailey, about to kill himself in a fit of profound despair. It climaxes when Clarence, the angel, shows what the all-American town of Bedford Falls would have become if George's goodwill and generosity had never enriched it. This is a scene so chaotic than some critics call it the "nighttown" sequence, after a nightmarish portion of James Joyce's modernist novel "Ulysses."

Some have charged "It's a Wonderful Life" with being uncritically conservative in its view of American life after the Depression and a destructive war. The only thing Capra found wrong with capitalism was Lionel Barrymore, one critic observed, referring to Barrymore's portrayal of the monstrous banker who almost ruins George's family.

Again, however, the situation is really more complex. On one hand, a happy ending arrives when George sees that his proper place is with ordinary, uncreative people who take comfort in their own conformity. But on the other, George has had an experience - the dream provided by Clarence the angel - that none of his neighbors could share. Even at the film's joyful climax, George is a loner with insights that place him outside the little community taken for granted by the less imaginative folks who crowd around him.

In his book "American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra" (University Press of New England), critic Raymond Carney rightly calls "It's a Wonderful Life" a movie of "endless frustrations, deferrals of gratification, and ... the complete impossibility of representing the most passionate impulses and imaginations of the self in the world." And yet, Carney adds, George's life is indeed wonderful - because he "has seen and suffered more, and more deeply and wonderfully" than anyone else in the story.

All of which provides more food for thought than one might have expected from a mid-'40s flop about a common man, a little town, and an angel who has yet to earn his wings.

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