It’s that time of year again! Time for hot chocolate by the fire, building snowmen, hosting extravagant parties, and waiting for Santa to come down the chimney!
Of course, no one finds this their reality, as the majority of movies over romanticize Christmas. Most people know the type: the cheesy Hallmark Channel movie about some overly decorated suburban town with that one person who left, who then comes back to fall in love with his or her high school sweetheart. It might as well achieve its Christmas designation with some sage advice from a mall Santa. There are also over joyous Christmas movies like Elf, where I am left queasy with Christmas spirit after the opening scene and stuck with the image of Will Ferrell in tights burned into my retinas. Then there’s the classic tale of Ralphie pining for a ‘Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle’ in A Christmas Story, another holiday classic reminding me of simpler times when the most stressful moment in life was getting a “triple-dog-dare” from friends, whether that person was born in the 40s, 70s, or 2000s, like myself.
Even as a teenager in high school, I’ve experienced more life than “Christmas movies” give credit. Christmas serves as a reminder that I will never see my grandpa again since my family lost him to cancer two summers ago. Most Christmas movies do not recognize the complexity of loss and fulfillment during the holiday season.
And then there is Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie I recently saw at Brattle Theater in Cambridge. Is it defined by this season of mandatory cheer, or does it rise above?
In this film, George Bailey (James Stewart) had always dreamt of adventure, ever since he was twelve-years-old working in Mr. Gower’s shop, but could never experience it with the responsibility of taking on his father’s building and loan after his death. Bailey sacrifices his dreams, not to mention his honeymoon, for the sake of his little hometown Bedford Falls.
The only thing holding himself back from literally throwing himself off a bridge is Bailey’s hapless guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, an “Angel Second-Class.” Clarence shows him how different the town and the people he cared about would become had he never been born. After some initial resistance, Bailey comes to appreciate his impact on the town and how, as Odbody tells Bailey, “each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole.” What Bailey thinks to be a miserable life of squandered fortune and adventure, turns out to be, as the title suggests, a wonderful one as it is filled with family and friends, the greatest treasures in life.
It’s A Wonderful Life had an opportunity, like Bailey, at a second chance in life. Capra’s original intent was to release the film in time for the 1946 Academy Awards. However, when initially released, the film flopped, effectively ending Capra’s career and bankrupting his Liberty Film Studios. Twenty-eight years later, the copyright lapsed and the film fell into the public domain. That is when TV channels began showing the film annually on repeat during the holidays, marking it as a Christmas classic. This film, like Bailey, almost took a plunge into the depths of the forgotten. The copyright fiasco was a blessing in bringing a film back to life, to be celebrated even 71 years after its release. Had this film never been given a second chance, the Christmas season would feel a little more like Pottersville, where fortunes are easily taken for granted and the value of friendship is never recognized. This film became an American tradition, especially during Christmas time, teaching generations the value of a person’s life. It helps to encapsulate the Christmas season and spirit. Instead of the holiday defining the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life defines the holiday. While falling out of copyright saved Frank Capra’s 1946 movie from anonymity, It’s a Wonderful Life is less like George Bailey today and more like Clarence Odbody, revealing to its viewers life’s most important lessons.
This winter, I first watched It’s A Wonderful Life at the Brattle Theater with my high school film club surrounded by people either returning to the film for the tenth time or coming to see it for the first time. I, like many of my friends in film club, had never seen it but somehow in that theater I could sense that it was a film that brought people together. The excitement was palpable, walking down the aisle and hearing the joy and laughter of children and adults tittering in anticipation. At the movie’s end, I could see people wiping away tears and talking to strangers about what they had just watched.
Experiencing the film with a crowd accentuates the feelings the movie builds toward. When the old man yelled at George to “kiss her instead of talking her to death” since “youth is wasted on the wrong people,” it became funnier. The phone call George and Mary shared seemed even sweeter as I noticed the couple in front of me leaning their heads on each other. As George ran around yelling “Merry Christmas” to the institutions he once resented, I realized how thankful I am for my friends sitting around me sharing this experience with me. My classmates in film club are the people who slowly became my best friends over the course of seven years, changing my life for the better, teaching me George Bailey’s greatest lesson: “no man is a failure who has friends.” Without the little town of Bedford Falls painting a grand image of Christmas, the holiday season would not be the same, as generations of viewers appreciate friends, family, and life for the better.