Living in the Capital of the World, one necessarily sees many remarkable things. One Christmas Eve in New York, I saw an unaccustomed sight, a large crowd of usually boisterous Christmas shoppers quietly huddled together on a subway platform. I peered through the crowd, and saw a man dressed in poor clothes, with a few simple tools, hard at work on ordinary soda cans. After much twisting and cutting, the cans were transformed into Christmas ornaments of extraordinary beauty. Then and there, in the cavernous subways beneath the big city, I began to think about redemption - the transformation of ordinary objects into something splendid - as the central story of mankind.
Hollywood works hard to bury this story. Current films promote a life of hedonism, a total submersion in material goods. Thus the public is distracted for a moment from the fact that we are all plunged into a world of pain and suffering, and that not of our own choosing. In our world, two streams run and mingle together, the dark, muddy waters of the temporal, and the bright waters of the eternal. The masses who cling to the temporal are drowned and washed away; and those precious few who move towards the light are saved.
One movie catches the essence of this struggle, and that is "Vigil in the Night," a forgotten classic by the director George Stevens. The movie opens with triumphal heroic music as if to announce that destiny is descending on a small hospital on the coast of England. Nearby is a lighthouse which sends its searching beams through a dark, raging storm, an apt metaphor for the life of man, a defenseless creature born into the storms of life. Though a lighted window, we see two sisters, both nurses, hard at work.
One sister is dedicated to a life of honor and duty, while the other is a free-spirit and negligent in her duties. The carelessness of the younger sister leads to a tragedy, ruining both careers, and sending both lives on a downward spiral. The conscientious sister finds work in the poorest of hospitals, and the negligent sister becomes a nursing assistant in a shabby rehabilitation clinic. But through all the trials and misery, God's providence is at work. At the darkest hour in their lives - a deadly epidemic in London - one sister will perform a heroic act of self-sacrifice, redeeming the lives of both.
The errant nurse's dutiful big sister is played by the comedienne Carole Lombard, an unexpected and inspired piece of casting, since Lombard is breath-taking in her ability to project the quiet heroism of the conscientious nurse. Movie goers in 1940 rejected the movie, remembering Lombard for her earlier comedic roles. Viewers today are in a more fortunate position, and will see only a remarkably moving performance. Lombard's remarks about God's providence in choosing who lives and who dies, take on a deep poignancy, because two years after the movie, the beautiful young actress also went to meet her Maker. Thus the movie seems a providential capstone to her career.
Many viewers will dismiss the movie as a sentimental, predictable hospital romance, but that is to miss the point. As for the movie being unrealistic, it should be remembered that the screenplay was based on a novel by A.J. Cronin, a physician turned novelist. Rather than a hospital romance, the movie is a profound and heart-wrenching story about the triumph of light over darkness, reminding us that the pain of life can indeed be redeemed though honor and self-sacrifice. The movie is highly recommended for anyone who is a social reformer or idealist at heart, and for anyone who is currently holding their own vigil in the night.
Remember that many of the movies discussed in this column, including "Vigil in the Night," can be watched on Youtube.com!
Old Embers Column