Ostensibly adapted from a 1971 novel by Will Stanton but in most respects a shameless clone of the Frank Capra-directed classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1945), this harmless live-action comedy from Walt Disney Productions takes place in a generic Midwestern city during the Depression. Uptight hardware-store proprietor Charley (Fred MacMurray) focuses so much on work that he’s become alienated from his three kids. Meanwhile, his long-suffering wife, Nettie (Cloris Leachman), longs for the adventure of visiting the World’s Fair in Chicago. One day, Charley escapes a series of near-fatal accidents and then encounters an angel (Harry Morgan), who explains that he’s been tasked with collecting Charley’s soul. Charley begs for time in which to settle his affairs, and you can guess what happens next—the brush with morality makes Charley realize how much he has to live for, so he becomes a better father, husband, and person, thereby improving his chances of earning a celestial reprieve. Whereas It’s a Wonderful Life goes dark and deep with themes of self-doubt and suicide, Charley and the Angel goes shallow and soothing by suggesting that any individual who makes a sincere effort can dramatically improve the circumstances of his or her life. If only that were so.
In some ways, Charley and the Angel is quite palatable. The storyline is coherent and linear, even with the goofy subplot about Charley’s sons inadvertently becoming bootleggers. Production values are excellent, despite the rickety process shots during car scenes; there’s even a certain hokey charm to the old-school FX used during scenes of the angel floating through the air and moving objects while invisible. As helmed by the reliable Vincent McEveety, the picture moves along briskly, lingering on important emotional moments just long enough for skilled actors to imbue their characters with humanity. Unsurprisingly, Morgan is the standout because he gets most of the jokes, and his cranky/sweet vibe is appealing. Leachman does respectable work in a thankless role, while Kurt Russell, playing a boy who courts Charley’s daughter, provides bland earnestness. As for MacMurray, he lends a somewhat bewildering energy—or rather a somewhat bewildering lack of energy. He’s so calm, even when insane things are happening, that he nearly becomes a caricature of the unflappable Disney dad archetype.
Charley and the Angel: FUNKY