There are people who know me well who might be a little surprised by the selection that ranks #4 on The List. Rest assured, however, that there is a method to my madness.
You may…or may not…be pleased to know that today’s entry is the final Christmas film we’ll be covering. By my count there are fifteen holiday treats to be found amongst our lot of 100. I am including the Thanksgiving classic Planes, Trains, & Automobiles and the original Die Hard and Lethal Weapon flicks, which may be considered Christmas movies only in the Manoverse but afterall I do make the rules. At any rate, today’s subject is the cream of the crop, the top of the heap, the gold standard. It comes in fourth on the overall countdown because of its genre. You see, these Christmas classics that I love so very much have one limitation. I really only feel compelled to watch them within a two month time frame spanning from mid-November at the earliest to not long after the New Year. On rare occasions I get into a Christmas in July kind of mood and pop one of my faves into the ol’ DVD player on a random warm weather day, but not often. I feel like if I start viewing them any old time of year that it steals away some of the magic of the Christmas season, and I just cannot let that occur. But as the old expression says, absence makes the heart grow fonder. When the proper season does come around I never get tired of watching these fantastic works of art. I enjoy them over and over for weeks. As a matter of fact, the #4 movie on The List gained cultural significance and infiltrated the hearts & minds of millions…including me…mainly due to repeat viewings. Lots of them.
I will refrain from boring my dear readers with a bunch of legalese and film industry insider gibberish that I honestly don’t completely understand myself. Suffice to say that due to a lapsed copyright our topic du jour entered what is called public domain in the mid-1970’s, meaning no one entity owned the sole right to broadcast the film. Therefore pretty much everybody did. Television was a different animal back then. CBS, NBC, & ABC were the only three networks, and cable was very much in its infancy. Local stations had time to fill at various points of the day, especially on weekends and late at night after the local news. The Tonight Show was on NBC until 12:30am during the week, but as I recall that was pretty much it. Anyone who is older than me and can add their recollections to that particular era please do. Even into the 1980’s most stations did not have shows on past 1:30. 24 hour television began during the 80’s but didn’t really become the norm until the 1990’s. Anyway, local stations needed programming and though I do not recall what they did for most of the year back then (I was a wee small child in the late 1970’s) I can say how the situation was handled from Thanksgiving to the New Year – It’s A Wonderful Life was shown…ad nauseum.
I do not recall exactly when I first saw It’s A Wonderful Life, though I think it was some time in my mid-teen years. I am a night owl, so if it was a weekend or there was no school the next day it was not unusual for me to be up late. My recollection is that I had heard of IAWL (as us Lifers refer to it) and figured I’d check it out. Afterall, there was no Internet, no round-the-clock news, and even when it did actually air videos there was only so much MTV one could endure. I immediately loved the movie. Loved it. I connected with the story, related to the character of George Bailey, and really liked Jimmy Stewart. I became a big Stewart fan and have since seen many of his movies, but this one is still my very favorite.
For those who are unfamiliar (although I cannot imagine that to be a very large group), It’s A Wonderful Life is a 1946 Frank Capra directed film based on a short story. That story, The Greatest Gift, was written by author/editor/historian Phillip Van Doren Stern in 1943. Unfortunately for Stern he was unable to get the story published and decided to just send it to friends as a Christmas present. One of those presents fell into the right hands and the powers-that-be in Hollywood thought it’d make a great movie. If only such Hollywood suits made similarly good decisions nowadays. But I digress. Frank Capra had already made a name for himself by directing such films as It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (#63 on this list), but found himself at a sort of crossroads in 1946. He had spent several years doing PR films for the War Department of the U.S. Government and there was some question as to whether he still had “it”. Movie star Jimmy Stewart was in the same boat. He was an Academy Award winning actor (1940’s The Philadelphia Story) with a successful track record (You Can’t Take It With You, Destry Rides Again, The Shop Around the Corner, the aforementioned Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Capra), but had been out of the loop since 1941 after deciding to enlist in the Army Air Corps and flying several combat missions during World War II. When The Greatest Gift came into Frank Capra’s possession he immediately thought Jimmy Stewart would make the perfect George Bailey, and thank God for that.
Our greatest gift, of course, is life. So it is not surprising that the primary idea of It’s A Wonderful Life centers around suicide. We meet George Bailey as a precocious yet loyal young boy who dreams of escaping his small town of Bedford Falls to go out into the world…to explore, to achieve, to taste success. We also meet Henry F. Potter, a cranky, wealthy, wheelchair-bound curmudgeon…”the richest and meanest man in the county”. Mr. Potter owns almost everything in Bedford Falls and nearly everyone is scared and intimidated by him, including George’s father Peter, who owns about the only remaining entity Potter does not…The Bailey Brothers Building & Loan. Peter Bailey is a kind soul who is a bit too soft-hearted and generous, which doesn’t sit well with Potter, who does occupy a spot on the board of directors of the building & loan. Eventually Mr. Potter drives Peter to his grave. Are you inspired yet?? Is your Christmas spirit glowing with mirth?? Probably not, but stay with me.
As George grows into adulthood several chances to leave Bedford Falls and achieve his dream come and go. His father dies just as he is about to leave for college (at the age of 22 because he had to stay home a few extra years to save the money), and the only way to save the family business is to stick around. George allows his younger brother Harry to go to college instead. Upon Harry’s graduation a few years later George is again supposed to escape but doesn’t because Harry has gotten hitched and his father-in-law has made a better offer. Eventually an already frustrated George marries girl-next-door Mary Hatch, who we know from earlier in the story has loved George since childhood. Time passes and George finds himself in the situation a lot of folks do…middle aged, married with children, in a job he hates, smothered by small town life and always wondering what else is out there beyond the confines of his prosaic existence. His Uncle Billy, a loveable drunkard who probably shouldn’t be trusted with any type of responsibilities but has helped run the business from the beginning, loses $8000, which one can assume in the 1940’s was a huge sum of money. The audience knows that the dough has inadvertently landed in the evil, grubby hands of Mr. Potter, but Uncle Billy doesn’t remember that and George has no idea. This causes George to become despondent and yes…suicidal. Fortunately for George Bailey God has sent him a guardian angel in the form of Clarence Oddbody AS2 (Angel 2nd Class), a kindly clockmaker who apparently isn’t too swift and hasn’t earned his wings up in Heaven yet. Clarence gives George the opportunity to see what life in Bedford Falls and the lives of various friends & family would be like if he’d never been born, and it is horrific. Uncle Billy went crazy and ended up in the looney bin. Harry drowned as a child. Bedford Falls has bars and dance halls. And Mary…well…she works at the library!! George decides he wants to live again and all’s well that ends well, especially when old pal Sam Wainwright (who invested in plastics and got rich) bails George out with a generous gift. No one ever remembers or realizes that Mr. Potter has the original $8k. This was lampooned in a fantastic Saturday Night Live skit that I encourage everyone to search for on YouTube or Hulu. Anyway, IAWL ends with the whole town gathered singing Auld Lang Syne and George realizing…yes, you guessed it…that he really does have a wonderful life.
Now that doesn’t sound like a heartwarming holiday film, and in fact Capra never really thought of it as such. Both he and Stewart loved the concept and afterward considered IAWL one of their favorite projects, but it was not considered by anyone at the time of production to be a Christmas movie. As a matter of fact, IAWL was (and still is to some degree) difficult to pigeonhole. If I am not mistaken theatrical trailers (remember, this was before TV) marketed it as what we would call a romantic comedy. That isn’t completely inaccurate, as there is a love story and some amusing moments, but the overall dark tone of the story isn’t exactly funny. I suppose in modern lingo IAWL would be thought of as a dramedy. One thing I have realized as I have gone through this writing process the past year+ is my affinity for such crossovers. I like my drama with a little humor, my comedy with some pathos, and my action injected with intelligence and realism.
There are undeniable parallels between IAWL and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Both feature an affluent, bitter old sourpuss. Both have a diligent, hardscrabble working man just trying to survive and support his family. Both feature spirits who take their charge on a journey through time so that they may realize the error of their ways. But whereas A Christmas Carol is about redemption…a worthy concept for sure…IAWL is about being happy with what you’ve got and seeing the glass as half full instead of half empty. And maybe that is atleast a more pragmatic goal for most of us.
The days of catching It’s A Wonderful Life dozens of times on a myriad of stations at all hours of the day & night throughout the Christmas season are long gone. Those endless repeated airings are saved for other holiday fare now. Beginning in 1995 NBC bought the exclusive rights to the film and now airs it only twice, usually sometime in early to mid-December and then again always on Christmas Eve. This is a double edged sword. For dyed-in-the-wool Lifers like myself who were used to seeing our favorite flick countless times every holiday season it has been an adjustment. But I also believe that in the eyes of many IAWL had worn out its welcome and had begun to be taken for granted and to some degree was the object of scorn & ridicule. The current scheduling makes each airing special, and for those of us who just have to see the movie more than twice there is always home video.
- You: The 10 best movies to lift you up in hard times (menafn.com)
- Movie Classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Not Just a Staple of the Holiday Season, But a Work of Art for All Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The best films for Christmas 2010 (guardian.co.uk)
- Film: It’s a Wonderful Life (americanthings.wordpress.com)
- Frank Capra at the BFI – review (guardian.co.uk)
- It’s A Wonderful Life [Retro Review] (mutantreviewers.wordpress.com)
- Mr Smith Goes to Washington – Frank Capra (mrmovietimes.com)
- “It’s a Wonderful Life”: The most terrifying movie ever (salon.com)
- New York town’s museum pays tribute to ‘Wonderful Life’ (seattletimes.nwsource.com)