Christmas in July – Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Its-A-Wonderful-Life

A white boy named Clarence? Drexl from True Romance would have words to say about that.

Saying “Merry Christmas!” to buildings? A state-appointed psychiatrist would have words to say about that.

Ah, humbug!

 

Just kidding. I loved It’s a Wonderful Life.

There’s a stigma around holiday films, and as traditions build and the years go on, it’s easy to rag on usually the most saccharin of them all: the Christmas Movie. I admit, I’ve never been a fan. Unless you consider Die Hard a Christmas movie; I do, and it’s become almost overexposed how many people throw that around these days. (I was here before The Office‘s Michael Scott referenced it! I was saying it before Die Hard for the National Film Registry‘s twitter! I’m so cool.) It’s funny, one of my favorite movies of all time has become a holiday film also – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws – a mainstay of any Independence Day celebration for me. So, not all holiday films are bad, just because they evoke a time of year. It’s just Christmas movies, often with their message of family values and helping the poor and all the humane things we should strive for as denizens of this planet…that just makes people sick to their goddamn stomaches.

I admit, this is why I’ve avoided It’s a Wonderful Life for 31 years. The most I’ve ever seen was Jimmy Stewart running through snowy streets, yelling “Merry Christmas!” at buildings, and maybe winking up at his ceiling, holding his family close. Seemed like some old-time, kumbaya shit to me. Sometime when I was a teen, I heard the movie was actually about suicide. What a crock. Was that a way to get teenagers to watch it? To get them to turn off the Sabbath records for 2 hours and give it a try? What Christian town did I grow up in?

It’s a Wonderful Life was on television all the time, when I was a kid; certainly around Christmas, but at least 4 or 5 other times during the year too. It’s always been that experience I knew I should have but always ran away from. It’s my sister’s favorite movie; that could’ve helped scare me away too. What I’m driving at is, I was a stupid, stupid, anti-establishment punk, poser kid.

itsPartly because it’s July and partly because the film doesn’t tip its hand too far about Christmas in the first 2 acts, I didn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life as a Christmas movie. And, I think that was an excellent mindset going in. It didn’t have baggage and aesthetic cues I was searching for. It wasn’t until the day the money went missing, in fact, and seeing the snow on the streets and the Christmas tree in George Bailey’s house that the holiday time period registered. Watching it as a film alone, a lot hit home for me. A boy trying to do good by his neighbors, boss and community. A man trying to strike out on his own, away from the family business, and do what makes him happy. The desire to continue the family name in hard times. Making sacrifices to keep a community and his family strong. These are all the ideas that swamped me as a young man: fierce independence, wanting to travel, wanting to not be locked down by career or family. Even as an adult, I admire George Bailey as an early 20-something, an open future completely sprawled ahead of him.

The film’s message of sacrifice and hope aren’t lost on me. It’s a romantic, pleasant film with great performances from Stewart, Reed and all supporting players. It fits perfectly as a Christmas movie too. Help the community and the community will help you. It has a lot of good things to say about small town folk, and quite a few bad things to say about the rich moneymen. (Maybe another Eastern bank allegory like The Wizard of Oz?) It’s so apparent how many films take an anti-capitalist stance in the wake of the Great Depression; it’s partly to thank for how I was educated on the topic growing up. The Christmas Carol sequence with Clarence, the soon-to-be angel, showing Bailey what life could be like without him was the only aspect I really knew about the film before I saw it. In the end, as fiercely independent as Bailey is, regretting the course his life has taken, his nightmare “sobers” him to another reality: conformity. The message works fine for the time, 1946, and great for the holiday, Christmas, but it has a mixed result on me decades later.

Rather, I like to see It’s a Wonderful Life as a historical item; the result of depression and war, and a glimpse at the beckoning baby-boomers and materialism of the 1950s. The film is All-American, about fitting in, down to its core. There’s a lot to love, but The Parallax View is nowhere to be seen here.

Also, this is the one and only Frank Capra film I’ve ever seen. Might have to consider that for Auteur Cinema Shame next year…

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Persona (1966)
3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. The Searchers (1956)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) / Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

 

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