Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) ****

NR, 130 min.
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodwrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Philip Van Doren Stern
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Virginia Patton, Charles Williams, Sara Edwards, William Edmunds, Lillian Randolph

I’ve watched Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” every year at Christmas since I was 14-years-old. This year I flipped that number. At 41 years of age, I’ve now seen the movie more than 27 times (including a few years in which I watched it twice between Thanksgiving and Christmas).

My initial screening came about as a bit of a fluke when my father and I stumbled upon it on PBS late one Christmas Eve. With no plans of even watching the film, a Christmas tradition was born. For many years, I watched it every year with my father. By the time I left college and moved on to a family of my own, we each had our own copies of the movie and continued the tradition on separate terms when we couldn’t be together during the holidays.

Two years ago, I lost my father to liver cancer. I didn’t miss our screening that year, but it was one of those Christmases when it was really just my immediate family with whom I was celebrating. This year, my mother came for Christmas. It was a wonderful visit, and we are both dealing with our loss better this year than last. But in terms of this tradition, it was more difficult for me.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was one of those family traditions that was really only owned by my father and I. That first Christmas it was just the two of us, and we chose to share it with everybody out of joy and convenience thereafter. It would’ve been difficult for the two of us to sneak away to our own private screening each year, and we wanted to share it with others. But, in my heart, it always belonged to my father and I.

It was a busy holiday for us this year, because for the first time we made a big deal out of our daughter’s birthday, which falls just two days before Christmas. This meant that much more planning and wrapping, baking and partying. As Christmas day approached the opportunities for me to keep me and my dad’s tradition alive dwindled. It wasn’t a priority for my wife, although she’s always joined me since we got together. Also my mother wasn’t so eager to watch it, as it simply wasn’t her tradition. And so, with only a small window in which to catch the film this year, I watched it alone for the only time I can remember.

I suppose I wasn’t really alone though. My dad was there. That sounds so sentimental and therapeutic when put into words, but I don’t really mean it like that. I stuck to what my father and I had established. I didn’t forget our pact, or cast it aside due to inconvenience or absence. As the Ka Tet in Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series might’ve said, I remembered the face of my father. It is much the same for George Bailey when his father passes. And in the end, that’s what makes his life so rich.

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