Christmas Classic: Why We Love Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

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WASHINGTON, December 4, 2014 – It’s hard to believe that Frank Capra’s endearing 1946 Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” was an Academy Award loser despite receiving 5 Oscar nominations. That’s because today, over 60 years since its debut, Capra’s wonderfully heartfelt film is one of the most enduringly popular movies for this or any Christmas season, particularly in the U.S.A.

As we conclude the chaotic political year of 2017 – a year in which we see America’s house badly divided – that seemingly lost America that celebrated the common man and American values we all used to share is recalled by Capra’s Christmas classic.

“Wonderful Life” recalls a simpler, more unified and genuinely inclusive country whose ultimate graciousness and neighborliness even in the most difficult of times is likely a major source of its continuing appeal. Yes, that America once existed. We still have the opportunity to visit that era in Capra’s Christmas classic, an entertaining and moving film that might be useful for our rising generations to experience. Even if it’s “only a movie.”

Director Steven Spielberg has said that whenever he goes on location he takes along a copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to show his cast how movies should be made. Not long ago, Variety Magazine reported that a remake of the movie was in the works. It’s supposed working title: “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story.” Hmm. How did that work out?

Nevertheless, we still have that beloved original Christmas classic. To celebrate, this holiday edition of our occasional List of Ten feature examines the top ten reasons why we all love this film.

10. Public domain – At one point, the film was a Christmas perennial on television. Why? The film’s copyright lapsed in 1973 because then-owner, National Telefilm Associates, failed to apply for a renewal and for 27 years the movie fell into the public domain, meaning anyone could air it without paying royalty fees. Already a Christmas classic on the silver screen, the film rapidly became a Christmas classic on TV, gathering iconic status in the process. However, in the late-1990s, NTA’s successor, Republic Pictures Corp., regained control of the film’s rights and began charging royalties. The film is now aired less often.

9. Appealing – This ubiquitous Christmas film, with its buoyant populism and portraits of small-town family life, appeals to red state and blue state folk alike. We feel George Bailey’s pain. We despair at the fate that keeps him from fulfilling his dreams of adventure, but salute as George selflessly aids his family, friends and community.

8. The Romance – Has there been a more romantic scene? James Stewart and Donna Reed crowd the frame with only a telephone between them, listening to their rich friend Sam Wainwright talk about how his new plastics factory is “the chance of a lifetime,” yet unable to pay attention to Sam’s words. That’s because they acutely feel each other’s presence and are barely able to breathe, with years of private longing nearly ready to explode. In this amazing scene, Frank Capra achieved a level of passion unmatched by anybody else in film.

7. The Underdog – We love the underdog, and this film, with its rags-to-eminence story, is a ringing affirmation of American opportunity. The film was originally panned by the critics when it was first released. The New Yorker said the film was “so mincing as to border on baby talk.” The original failure of the film cost Capra his independent production company, Liberty Films, which he had created to escape studio control.

“I will deal with the little man’s doubts, his curses, his loss of faith in himself, in his neighbor, in his God,” wrote Mr. Capra in his autobiography.

6. The hero was human – Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey is our hero in this film but he was not a saint. He lost his temper, he was ambitious and despondent, and he was faced with temptation. George was also suicidal. But the small-town savings-and-loan founder regains his faith in himself and others. He reveals a heart of concern when he jumps into a freezing river to save Clarence. Also, George Bailey did not judge the promiscuous Violet. He didn’t approve her lifestyle, but he was merciful to her.


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5. Donna Reed – As Mary Hatch, George Bailey’s love interest, Donna Reed plays an innocent and unsophisticated young women, but she is a key figure in the film. Mary has to be working behind the scenes to rally friends and family around her suicidal husband. No Mary, no happy ending. Ironically, Reed won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance as Lorene, a prostitute, in the 1953 film “From Here to Eternity.” She then went on to be the quintessential mom in TV’s popular sitcom, “The Donna Reed Show.”

4. Clarence – We all love angels. Clarence Odbody is an angel second class who has yet to earn his wings so is sent to earth to save Jimmy Stewart’s character from suicide in hopes he can earn them. English-stage actor Henry Travers played Clarence. Travers, whose original name was Travers Hagerty, was raised the son of a doctor in the town of Berwick-on-Tweed on the Scottish border. He was often cast in films as a dignified and amiable senior citizen. He was nominated for an Oscar for best Actor in a Supporting Role in “Mrs. Miniver,” in 1942. He only made four films after “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and retired in 1949. He died in 1965 at the age of 91.

Christmas classic

Child actor Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Public domain photo)

3. Zuzu – Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey, the sickly daughter of Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, only got six minutes on the screen. But she also got to say one of the most memorable lines in the film: “Look, Daddy: Teacher says that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”

Grimes was just six-years-old when she played Zuzu. She was orphaned at 14 when her mother died, and went on as an adult to work as a medical technologist for 20 years. The Seattle-based 75-year old now makes a living appearing at frequent film showings, and regularly travels to Seneca Falls, N.Y. – the model for the movie’s fictional town of Bedford Falls – to sign autographs at the annual festival in tribute to the film. It has been reported that Grimes will return for a “Wonderful Life” sequel as an angel who shows Bailey’s unlikeable grandson (also    named George Bailey) how much better off the world would have been had he never been born.

2. Jimmy Stewart – Could any other actor have played the role of George Bailey as brilliantly as James Stewart? Stewart credited “It’s a Wonderful Life” for saving his career. He had been serving in World War II for five years, an eternity to be absent from the screen. He returned to his MGM contract, but the studio had found no projects for him, so he leaped at the chance to work with Frank Capra again. They had worked together before on “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “You Can’t Take It with You.” “Wonderful Life” added a Christmas classic to this duo’s already acknowledged political classic and comedy classic: a fabulous film trifecta.

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