Friday, 2 December 2016

It's a Wonderful Life

Premiering in December of 1946 in theatres and starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, "It's a Wonderful Life" received five Academy Award nominations and later became a staple on American television each Christmas season.  Sleepy Bedford Falls resident, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a struggling businessman whose savings and loans company is about to go bankrupt, leading George to contemplate jumping off a bridge.  However, an angel sent from heaven named Clarence intervenes, showing George what life would really be like if he had never been born.

Director Frank Capra flashes back to George's childhood:  how he was in a sledding accident and almost drown, how he was mistreated by his employer at the local drugstore, and how he dreamed about travelling the globe.  In the meantime, though, he met his future wife, Mary, played by Donna Reed, at a dance where they lindyhopped until their feet were sore.  As they meandered home that evening, they stopped at an abandonned house, threw a rock at the window, and made a wish.

Sadly, George's father ,who ran a savings and loans business, succumbed to a stroke in the next scene.  Though grief-stricken, George finds joy when he marries his sweetheart Mary, fulfilling the wish she had made in front of the abandonned house.  On a rainy night, the newlyweds are about to depart for their honeymoon in Europe, when the savings and loans employees beg him to take over his late father's business.  Begrudgingly, he agrees and foregoes his honeymoon.

Although he starts off slowly, and despite his immoral nemesis Mr. Potter, George is able to build his business back up using honest methods.  In the meantime, Mr. and Mrs. Bailey purchase the decrepit house that they once strolled past on that fateful evening, discovering its hidden charms.    They start a family which eventually totals four children.  As the business heads south, the once charming house becomes a liability:  every time George walks up the staircase, he shakes his head in disgust at the knob which comes lose from the bannister post.  The once adorable children become an annoyance:  his daughter's piano playing grates on his last nerve.

What's the source of his distress?  Uncle Billy has lost $8000 of the company's money.  George runs to Martini's bar where he hits rock bottom and then cries out to God for help.  When the struggling businessman meets the angel, he then realizes that he is not poor, but rich.  He runs home to his family on Christmas Eve, his wife waiting for him with open arms.  They sing together under the Christmas tree.  The community bands together to raise funds to replace the missing money.  It's a wonderful life!

Photo courtesy

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Most Famous Christmas Movie

Last night, we watched the 1947 classic, "Miracle on 34th Street", the most famous New York City Christmas movie.  In the summer of 2012, when Rob and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, we visited New York City.  I'll never forget our walk to the Empire State Building.  We spotted Macy's and realized we were on 34th Street -- it was a surreal moment for us -- all the memories of the movie came flooding back.  Here are fifteen facts you may not know about the movie.

1.  "Dear Santa" letters were up by 25% in 1947 after movie-goers saw the 21 sacs of mail sent to Santa in the 1946 movie.

2.  Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle in the movie, also played Santa Claus in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade of 1946.

3.  Edmund Gwenn's character replaced the drunk Santa in the parade.  In 1948, the New York Times magazine reported a "Santa who grabbed a trim young mother, set her on his knee and suggested they both go out and have a drink".

4.  In the opening scene of "Miracle on 34th Street", Edmund Gwenn's character walks down a New York City street and notices Santa's reindeer in a store window.  Rudolph, however, is missing. While Rudolph had already been invented in 1939 in the Gene Autry song, he did not become popular until the 1964 TV special "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer".

5.  Edmund Gwenn's character was given a psychological test in which he had to answer a series of questions including "Who was the Vice President of the United States under John Quincy Adams?"  He answered it incorrectly by saying "Daniel D. Tompkins."  The correct response should have been John C. Calhoun.

6.  The headline "'Kris Kringle Krazy!  Kourt Kase Koming Kalamity!' Kry Kiddes" was probably inspired by the absurd headlines run by the Daily Variety in the 1940's and 1950's including "Sticks Nix Hick Pix".

7.  The Santa suit that Edmund Gwenn wore was auctioned for $22,500 in 2011.

8.  A little Dutch girl meets Santa at Macy's and sings the traditional Dutch song "Sinterklaas Kapoentje".  Edmund Gwenn's character, who happens to speak Dutch, sings along with her.

9.  A real life rivalry did exist between the two departments stores, Macy's and Gimbel's, from 1910 until 1987, when the latter when out of the business.

10.  Every year at Christmas time, U.S. courts re-enact the trial of Kris Kringle for children.

11.  Screen writer Valentine Davies was inspired to write "Miracle on 34th Street" after Christmas shopping in 1944.

12.  Edmund Gwenn grew a white beard and gained 30 pounds for the role of Kris Kringle.  He won an Oscar for his performance.

13.  Three hundred thousand children each year sit on Santa Claus's knee at Macy's.

14.  "Miracle on 34th Street" could have been called "It's Only Human", Mr. Kringle of 'The Big Heart;".

15.  Seven-year-old Actress Natalie Wood, who played the little girl who didn't believe in Santa Claus, actually thought Edmund Gwenn was the real McCoy.

Note:  For more information on the movie, read my post "Rickety Wooden Escalators & Cracked Marble Floors" at

Source: AND

Edmund Gwenn in "Miracle on 34th Street" courtesy

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Wait for Me, Daddy!

"From what I understood from the photographer, he was trying to get a picture of how many soldiers there were, but then this kid made the getaway." (Jack Bernard)

It's the most famous photo ever to be taken in Canada during World War II.  It appeared in Life, Time and Newsweek.  It hung in every school in British Columbia during the war.  And it was used to sell Canadian war bonds.  It's called "Wait for Me, Daddy!".

On October 1, 1940, a column of Canadian soldiers marched down Vancouver's Columbia Ave. to the train station.  Their uniforms freshly pressed, their hats tilted on their head at just the right angle, their boots freshly shined, the new recruits were ready for battle.  But one little boy wasn't ready for them to leave.  The white-blond haired boy broke away from his mother's grasp and ran after his father who was part of the column, reaching out his little hand as if to say "Wait for me, Daddy!".  His father responded by reaching out his own hand. His elegantly dressed mother reached out for her son's hand, trying to keep up.  

All the while, photographer Claude Dettloff was snapping photographs of the column of soldiers on Columbia Ave.  Unprepared for the scene to follow, he captured a once in a lifetime moment on film.  His photograph would be published in The Province newspaper,  later to be picked up by several magazines including Reader's Digest.  Dettloff would become famous over the heart-grabbing image of the white-blond haired boy chasing his war-bound father down the street.


The little boy, Warren Bernard, returned to his Vancouver home that autumn day with his mother, Bernice.  His father, Jack, along with the rest of the British Columbia Regiment, boarded a train for Nanaimo where he underwent military training.

Later Jack fought on the battlefields of France and Belgium.  On the home front, Bernice and Warren lived out the war on a modest income in a rented apartment.  Since money was scarce, Bernice agreed to let Warren participate in a war bonds tour in 1943.  Dressed in a smart blue blazer and short grey pants, Warren toured the province with war bonds that featured the famous Dettloff photo.  The young boy, who had to take time off from his schooling at General Wolfe Elementary, delivered the same speech every time, ending with the line:  "Help bring my Daddy home!"  The teary-eyed audience usually responded generously to his plea.  When Jack Bernard returned home in October of 1945, Bernice and Warren were there to meet him, as was Claude Dettloff, ready to photograph the happy reunion.  

The white-haired boy grew up, married in 1964 and in the 1980's, became mayor of Tofino, British Columbia.  A sculpture honouring the moment the Bernard family said goodbye, was recently erected at the corner of 8th Street and Columbia Avenue, the spot where the original photo was taken.  Canada Post has issued a two dollar coin with the famous image.

The reunion between father and son courtesy

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Capa's Camera Captures Conflict

"The desire for any war photographer is to be put out of business." 
(Robert Capa)

Robert Capa courtesy

Andre Friedmann was born in Austria-Hungary in 1913 to Jewish parents.  Capa fled political repression in Hungary as a teenager and settled in Berlin.  He always wanted to be a writer, but with the invention of the 35 mm camera, he seized the opportunity to become a photographer when it presented itself. Combining his love for writing and his eye for photography, he embraced the relatively new occupation of photojournalist, specializing in war photography.  In 1933, with the rise of Hitler and the persecution of Jews, Friedmann fled Germany to France.  He changed his name to the more Christian sounding Robert Capa to avoid religious discrimination common in France at the time, ensuring that he was not turned down for jobs.  While visiting his mother and brother who had fled to New York City in 1937, Capa signed a contract with Life magazine as a war photographer.  He covered five conflicts:  the Spanish Civil War, the second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the 1948 Arab Israeli War and the First Indochina War.  Capa was always where the action was:  at the American invasion of Sicily in 1943: at Omaha Beach on D-Day 1944; and at the site of the last fatality of the Second World War's European Theatre in 1945.  General Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Capa the Medal of Freedom in 1947 for his contribution to the war effort.  Robert Capa was killed by a landmine while covering the Indochina War in 1954.  Here are some of his haunting photographs from World War II.

1.  D-Day Landings (1944)

2.  Chartres, 1944

3.  Boy on Tank, Chartres, 1944

4.  Allied Entry Into Paris

5.  Sicilian Peasant

6.  Frenchman Crying

7.  London Bombed

8.  Nazi Train (1938)

9.  D-Day

10.  Last Man to Die, Leipzig, Germany, 1945


Monday, 28 November 2016

Britain's Secret Weapon

Here are ten facts you may not know about radar.

1.  Radar was first developped in the 1930's in Bawdsey, England.

2.  Radar is similar to a bat using sound to see in the dark.

3.  Radar operators during World War II were able to spot objects up to 200 miles away.

4.  A semiconductor crystal was a key component of radar.  Certain universities worked to perfect this crystal including Purdue, Bell, MIT and University of Chicago.

5.  Radar was the secret weapon used by the British during the Battle of Britain.

6.  Radar operators were sworn to secrecy, not even revealing their work to their parents.  They often said they were doing "wireless" work.

7.  British Commandos raided a Nazi radar station in Belgium in 1942.  They dismantled the system and brought it back to Britain to study.

8.  During World War II, radar was able to detect the location of aircraft, vessels and even V-1 rockets.

9.  Over 4000 personnel were involved in radar operations in Britain.

10.  At its height, radar operators could see almost 2000 aircraft on their screens at one time.

Note:  For more information, read Gwen Arnold's book Radar Days (

Canadian radar operators courtesy  

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Monuments Men

Photo of looted painting discovered in cave courtesy

The Monuments Men, 350 strong, were a group of middle aged, highly intelligent, low ranking officers who were recruited in 1943 to preserve the culture of Europe.  With day jobs as art historians, curators, architects and artists, these men set out to rescue, preserve and repair paintings, sculptures, monuments, bridges, palazzi, etc.  Many of these objets d'art were looted by the Nazis and were stored in castles and salt mines.  One convoy with 200 paintings was headed to Hermann Goering's birthday party, but was intercepted by the Monuments Men.  Some treasures were hidden by the Allied Armies  behind false walls, in wine cellars, basements, country churches and medieval fortresses.  Twenty percent of Europe's art was looted by the Nazis.  Despite having no vehicles, gasoline or typewriters, the Monuments Men were able to save and catalogue many of these treasures.  Although the Monuments Men disbanded in 1951, the quest for missing objets d'art continues; as recently as 2010, a painting called "Jewish Women with Oranges" was discovered in Germany.  Many missing pieces still remain at large. 

Photo of Monuments Men with looted art courtesy

Note:  For more information, watch The Monuments Men produced by George Clooney.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The London Blitz

On September 7, 1940, 348 German bombers escorted by 617 fighters bombed London for two hours straight.  Later that evening the Luftwaffe returned guided by the fires set by the first raid and blasted the city again, this time until 4:30 am.  And so began the London Blitz, short for "blitzkrieg", a German term for "lightning war".  The city was bombed for the next 57 nights and remained a centre for attack until May 11, 1941.

Children were evacuated to the countryside, some even overseas to North America.  The majority of Londoners, however, chose to remain in the city, including the Royal Family, who helped to boost the general morale immensely.  Londoners soon grew accustomed to a new routine.  When night fell each evening, they would draw their blinds.  Streetlights would remain off.  Traffic in the city became a hazard to both motorists and pedestrians due to poor visibility.  Some families would sequester themselves in Anderson shelters assembled in their backyards.  Some individuals would wear gas masks in anticipation of an attack.  Some families headed underground to the Tube stations to find protection.  Many Londoners (60%) simply remained in their homes, maybe with a frying pan over their head.  Some brave souls grew bored and climbed up on rooftops and balconies to witness the attack first hand.  According to war correspondent Ernie Pyle:

"You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires -- scores of them, perhaps hundreds...These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known." *

The next morning, Londoners had to make their way through the rubble as they headed for work or for school.  Some returned from the underground stations to find their house flattened.  Some houses survived the bombings but remained uninhabitable.  There is the story of one woman who found a German plane in her garden, complete with the pilot trying to make an exit; she turned him in to the local authorities.

Although Hitler aimed to demoralize Londoners to the point that Britain would surrender in 1940, the Blitz actually united the British in a common cause.  The Nazis' plans for Operation Sea Lion, a land invasion of Britain, were shelved by mid-1941 in favour of an attack on the Soviet Union.  And Londoners got their city back.

*"The London Blitz, 1940", EyeWitness to History, (2001).

Note:  Read cartoonist Ben Wicks' book, Nell's War:  Remembering the Blitz, drawing on first hand accounts of the London Blitz.

Photograph of St. Paul's Cathedral, which remained intact during the Blitz, courtesy of