“IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” AND WHAT IT MEANS TO US
On December 9, 1946, the cast and crew of the new Frank Capra film, “It’s A Wonderful Life” – including the two stars of the movie, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed – gathered along with invited celebrity guests at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, California to celebrate the completion and first showing of what would turn out to be the quintessential American movie. The star-studded turnout featuring such luminaries of the silver screen as Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, Humphrey Bogart and Lucille Ball belied the modest premise of Capra’s story: A down on his luck family man gets the chance to see what the life of those closest to him would be had he never been born, courtesy of his guardian angel, Clarence. The very simplicity of its premise was also its very direct charm and appeal to the American public and is what spawned a seventy year love affair with the movie…Although it would take the country collectively decades to figure out just how much Frank Capra’s first post-World War Two movie actually meant to them.
The timing of the release of “It’s A Wonderful Life” could not have been worse: The eastern half of the country was pounded by one of the harshest winters on record as the film began to open in the latter part of December 1946, keeping many potential ticket buyers off the streets and thus away from showings of Capra’s and Stewart’s latest offering. Perhaps hurting matters even more, the U.S. was fresh out of World War Two and the trend in Hollywood was for brighter, more upbeat pictures. True, rival Hollywood studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn had released to much success “The Best Years of Our Lives” in 1946 to not only acclaim, but great box office receipts, but that was earlier in the year. Many box office pundits have cited the Christmas season release of Frank Capra’s film as a major stumbling block to its original popularity. Most people, after a long day of Christmas shopping, simply did not want to deal with a movie that had quite a few dark undertones. Thus was one of the true classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age wrapped up and put into mothballs, seemingly to languish in utter obscurity for all time.
Hollywood has nothing however if not the reputation for famous second acts. “It’s A Wonderful Life” had been an independent film released commercially by RKO in 1946. With the unimpressive receipts tallied and gone through by the studio bean counters, no more interest and care in the industry was given to what was seen as a failed experiment. The copyright was allowed to lapse on the motion picture. Television, the movie industries red headed stepsister, swooped in and exploited this lapse and a movie that literally cost them nothing to show eventually generated not only valuable advertisement dollars, but also a strong and loyal fan base that had missed out on seeing the movie when it had originally premiered. Frank Capra, having long before written off his most personal film as something of an orphan, remarked with some surprise to a group of students at Wesleyan University, “I woke up one Christmas morning, and the whole world was watching “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The whole world was watching, including this author.
I was fifteen years old and home sick from school when I made a momentous and life changing decision. I had already exhausted a huge pile of comic books in a sickened marathon haze and having nothing better to do while I waited out a stubborn cold, I slid in a VHS copy of “It’s A Wonderful Life” into my bruised and battered video cassette player. I had never seen the movie before, but I was at an age where I was beginning to develop a real interest in the history of the cinema and so I gorged myself on a veritable ton of older movies, most of them of the Abbot and Costello and old Universal monster movies variety. ‘Perhaps this one will be as good as “Buck Privates” or “House of Dracula,”’ I thought absently as the opening credits were flashed in front of me on my tiny bedroom television set. For the next two plus hours I was transported from my stuffy bedroom in Billingsley, Alabama to the magical and mythical eastern town of Bedford Falls.
All of these years later, it’s difficult to explain just what it was about the characters of “It’s A Wonderful Life” that touched me so. To attempt to break it down into words is akin to putting a fine summation on a first love or the miracle of a brilliant and perfect sunset or the indelible beauty of a long and hot summer day when you’re a kid. How can you explain things that are just so right and so perfect? The list for Capra’s touching film seems almost endless: There was a young George Bailey who was full of wander lust and passion to try so many different things that the world had to offer. This I could certainly relate to as my spirit seemed forever landlocked in a tiny area of the country that made Bedford Falls seem downright like a metropolis. There was that looming sense of being trapped in your situation and in your life, with no way out. This I could also relate to. All I knew as an under the weather teenager as the final moments of my first viewing of this movie came to an end was that I had found the cinematic equivalent of true love.
Some things in life that we carry over from our childhoods seem almost impossible to relate to when we attempt to revisit them at later stages of adulthood. They become dated and it seems impossible to ever get back to a frame of mind that made such things relevant and important to us at the time. The affection might always remain for the now obsolete book or piece of music or movie, but the current day importance has long since left us and can leave the most stoic among us staring wistfully out a window mourning yet another piece of our youth that has been sent packing down the hard road of life. But a funny thing happened with “It’s A Wonderful Life”: It grew along with me, remaining a solid and important touchstone that I would revisit once or twice a year. Each viewing into my twenties, through my tumultuous thirties and finally into my forties was a true revelation, sparking both the laughter of recognition and the tears of sorrow for the things in my life which no longer remained except in my memory. Frank Capra’s masterpiece of filmmaking saw me through the agonies of dashed teenage romances, the brash and sometimes unwise decisions of my twenties, the loss of loved ones and friends, a painful divorce and, finally, the discovery of my very own “Mary Hatch” – Jimmy Stewart’s better half in the film, perfectly essayed by the lovely Donna Reed – in the bedazzling form of a soulmate and new and forever wife.
Along the way, the movie that Frank Capra and Liberty Films so lovingly crafted in the summer of 1946 has served in the same capacity to an entire nation; It’s both intensely personal to each viewer and yet emotionally accessible to the masses. It’s been a brother, a sister, lover, friend and confidante. It’s seen America through the tenuous first steps after the last Great War, through countless foreign entanglements, through our own disilusionment with many of our leaders, through our own solid and firm beliefs that what made America great once before can do so again. It’s been a listener and a confessor, ally and lifeblood. Seventy years on from its first viewing it has woven itself into the very fabric of America itself. It is at once us and uniquely itself. That’s quite an accomplishment for only being around for seventy three years. Happy Birthday, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Here’s to seventy three more!