Wednesday, December 24, 2008

It’s a Wonderful Flick

About 25 years ago, I stayed up with my dad on Christmas Eve while my mother and brother went to bed. For some reason, although television was never really something we paid much attention to during the holidays, we decided to flip through the channels. We came across this old black & white movie that had just started, so we decided to watch it.

It was about a man that never seemed to get what he wanted out of life. He spent all of his time helping other people, often at the sacrifice of his own desires. On a particularly bad Christmas Eve, he tries in desperation to take his own life after he prays to God for some help and is answered with a punch in the mouth. Interrupting his suicide attempt, however, is the real answer to his prayer—an angel who shows him what would’ve happened to the people in his life had he not been there for them. Through this vision he discovers what a wonderful life he has.

Of course, most people know the story of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. In the past twenty years it has become a perennial television holiday staple. It has lived a second life, thanks to video and television distribution, after spending decades as a forgotten Hollywood Silver Age gem. And its premise has been reproduced in countless movies and television shows.

But on that Christmas Eve when my father and I stumbled across it on PBS, it had just begun to be remembered. I had never seen it. I don’t think I had ever watched a black and white movie before, or one that had been released before 1968. My dad was familiar with the movie by title but had never seen it before either. So we sat there until well past midnight watching this movie that was well outside of our individual film tastes—there were no car chases, or gunfights, or space ships, or dragons. We sat there and fell in love with a movie.

I have returned to “It’s a Wonderful Life” every year since my father and I made that Christmas discovery so many years ago. For many years, the two of us continued to watch it together every Christmas Eve, including the rest of our family members in our new found holiday tradition. By the time I moved away from home and settled with a family of my own, it had become a tradition for many American families.

While my father and I no longer had the opportunity to watch it together every Christmas Eve, I continued to watch it with my own family, never going a year without seeing it. And my father and I continued to watch it together whenever we could each holiday season.

Finally, this year we were together for Christmas Eve once more, this time with my children and his grandchildren. Now, the three-year-old is still a little too young to care, but my seven-year-old has already started to develop a healthy appreciation for movies. But still, this one didn’t have the cartoon characters, or the talking dogs, or the friendly robots that meet his criterion for what makes a good movie.

When we asked him to watch it with us, he said, “No.” But then we put it in and by midway through the movie—even after that yucky kiss between Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed—he was hooked. We asked him if he wanted to stop and go to bed so Santa could come, and he looked at us with sad doe eyes. “Will Santa still come if I stay up to finish it?” Well, certainly he would.

The poor kid never did make it to the end of the movie, though. He fell asleep just as Clarence the angel got to what happened on the day George prayed for help. But until his hard day of playing with his cousins got the best of him, he was as wrapped up in George Bailey’s wonderful life as I was the first time I saw it and have been ever since. I just know that when I go to watch it next Christmas, he’ll be right there by my side waiting to see one of the most magical movies ever made.


Chris said...

I used to do some film reviews for my college paper. For the Christmas issue, I decided to do a comparison of classic and contemporary Christmas films.

I chose "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" for the classics and "Jingle All the Way" and "The Santa Claus" for the contemporary.

What a contrast in nearly every conceivable way.

Andrew D. Wells said...

There's an interesting reflection there of what the holiday as a whole has become. Very interesting since "Miracle on 34th Street" certainly was a hint of the direction we were heading in as a society and therefore does directly lead to films such as "Jingle All the Way".

It was also quite interesting this year to consider the financial scenes in "It's a Wonderful Life" in light of our current national fiscal crisis. Maybe Potter has some legitimate points.