IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Frank Capra, 1946) was on TV all the time when I was a kid. It had fallen into the Public Domain in 1974 when the studio failed to renew the copyright, which meant the studio wasn’t collecting $$ every time it showed, which was bad for them but good for the movie and the people because it gained a second life as a December TV staple. Since the TV stations didn’t have to pay the studio, it played on multiple channels daily all month.
Which meant we never watched it.
Our parents thought it was schmaltzy, and anything that was so popular that it was on TV multiple times a day was clearly not cool, so we skipped it. At some point, we caved – probably nothing else was on. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, it turned out, is a great movie! Who knew Capra could so masterfully tug at our heart strings? It’s the little guy vs the bankers of this world, celebrating people who are willing to eek out a living because what they’re doing is the Right Thing To Do, people who sacrifice adventure for community and family. It’s a patriotic picture, but one that stresses neighbors over politics. It’s a post-war patriotism that is very humanistic, not like the modern version of patriotism that makes people with Capraesque ideals feel like they need to wash their hands.
We watched it on TV and VHS for years, and a while back my sister and I started a new tradition of seeing it on the big screen at the historic Brattle Theatre.
The first few years we went, the show was somewhat sparsely attended. We sat in the front row, amazed by the details that were impossible to see on TV. The snow was made from a sudsy foam! Young George, played by teen dream Bobbie Anderson (who is also in another Xmas fave, THE BISHOP’S WIFE) and his gang wear knit hats with skull & crossbone patches on the front! The soda fountain where young George works is amazing! Old man Potter keeps some creepy things on his desk like a skull that looks like a WWI keepsake!
In recent years, the tradition has caught on, and the 7pm shows sell out, which is great. Seeing the film with a full house is heartwarming – the world isn’t full of terrible people after all – and everyone claps at the end. I’m probably not the only one brushing away a tear. The Brattle shows the film for a whole weekend now instead of just one night. This year, I failed to get my Friday night tix in advance, and almost fucked up our tradition. Fortunately, we made it to the Sunday night show. Last year they showed the movie on DCP, which was a drag, but this year were able to secure a decent 35mm print, which made a huge difference. We sat in my seats in the front row (one has my name on it) and had to stop ourselves from saying the lines along with the actors. Sometimes this was not possible. (Drunkenly) “I’m all right, I’m all RIGHT!” (With a sneer) “Look, mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere!”
I’m always amazed by a few things – first, how dull the opening scene is. Stars in the heavens talking to each other! For over two minutes! Then it cuts to a blank screen that slowly comes into focus! A tough opener, Capra. Once Clarence and the audience are up to speed on George’s life thus far, the depressing “what if” scenario is actually pretty short – maybe 20 minutes. It feels like forever, and the first million times I saw the movie, I was convinced this dark sequence was the bulk of the affair. Not so. The angels tell Clarence at the start that he needs to spend an hour finding out all about George, and they are right on the money, time-wise.
Of course Sarah and I adore Uncle Billy and his pet crow. When his room is on the big screen we’re able to see his whole menagerie – birds, a pet monkey, a little white Scottie dog, and that adorable squirrel who gives him a much-needed hug. I also love the old house. Mary’s dream is mine, minus all the kids. Fix up the old, empty house that’s falling down and move in.
I’ve seen this movie dozens of times by now, but I still tear up at a number of scenes: George gets his ears boxed by the sad and drunk pharmacist. George stands up to Potter after his dad dies and delivers an incredibly moving speech about community responsibility and the poor. Martini moves his family and animals to his new home and George and Mary welcome them with bread, salt, and wine. And of course, the ending. Jimmy Stewart’s performance during the finale is amazingly emotive. He is crying with a mixture of relief, gratitude, and shock. It’s impossible for me not to cry along with him. I’m not made of stone!
I know to bring a hankie.