A Tale of Two Movies

It’s Christmastime, and so once again it’s time to bring Frank Capra‘s “It’s a Wonderful Life” out of storage for it’s annual holiday viewing.  Apparently this is a tradition even in the big city.  This past week’s New York Times “Movies” section offered a timely review and commentary on Capra’s 1946 flop and subsequently re-discovered classic film starring Jimmy Stewart.

When I opened my NYT and saw the article, I admit I had certain expectations.  I expected an article about how the writer, Wendell Jamieson, was touched by the film, despite having seen it so many times, and how he was reminded of those “small town values” that are so important in this troubling time.  You’ve probably read or thought something similar about this movie, because it does touch our hearts if our hearts are open to the wonderful message of this film.

NOPE.  Instead, I found this:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

…and it gets even better:

I’ve found, after repeated viewings, that the film turns upside down and inside out, and some glaring — and often funny — flaws become apparent. These flaws have somehow deepened my affection for it over the years.

Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

And what about that banking issue? When he returns to the “real” Bedford Falls, George is saved by his friends, who open their wallets to cover an $8,000 shortfall at his savings and loan brought about when the evil Mr. Potter snatched a deposit mislaid by George’s idiot uncle, Billy (Thomas Mitchell).  But isn’t George still liable for the missing funds, even if he has made restitution? I mean, if someone robs a bank, and then gives the money back, that person still robbed the bank, right? (emphasis added)

To say that Mr. Jamieson of the New York Times doesn’t get it just doesn’t seem to be enough.  Not only does he fail to understand the hopeful message of this film, I’m not sure that he even saw the same “It’s a Wonderful Life” that I did.  I’m beginning to wonder if he went to a new showing of a snarky remake using Jimmy Stewart’s digitally manipulated image and a voice impersonator  (remember that creepily manipulated John Wayne commercial?) – perhaps directed by Tim Burton or John Waters.

Fortunately, not all movie reviewers are as flint-hearted as Mr. Jamieson of the New York Times.  Another article from another newspaper also crossed my desk this morning – one entitled “It really is a ‘Wonderful Life” written by Beth Palmer.

To boil it all down to one very bare, ugly sentence, there’s no such thing as cheap happiness, even at Christmas. Good things — all good things — have a price; they take time and effort, and sometimes frustration. But they’re worth it.

Ms. Palmer got the message of this movie in a way the NYT probably never will.   “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a popular movie around Christmastime – not just because it is set during the holiday season but because (for most of us anyway) our hearts are more receptive to its message during this special time of the year.  Ms. Palmer closes her article with a quote from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland‘s book Shepherds, Why This Jubilee? – he sums up the greater message of the Christmas season better than I ever could:

Christmas is joyful not because it is a season … without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby … born away in a manger with no crib for his bed, makes all the difference in the world...”

It really is a wonderful life.  Merry Christmas!

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1 Response to A Tale of Two Movies

  1. A minor side note: This movie was not a success when it first came out in the wake of World War II. Apparently Americans were not thrilled at the reminders of the Depression, war, and small towns they had just finished leaving behind. However, thanks to television, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was rediscovered by a new audience dealing with inflation, recession, Watergate, the Church Committee hearings into CIA abuses, etc.

    Sounds a bit like today, doesn’t it? It seems like we need to be humbled in order to be receptive to the message of a “Wonderful Life.”

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