One of my goals this season was to finally watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, I somehow made it to 33 years old without ever having seen it — though of course it’s impossible not to have a pretty good idea of what it’s about, since its plot is mimicked by no fewer than ten TV shows per year. There are, of course, many classic films I haven’t seen, and some of them are Christmas films, but this was the one that tended to spawn the most “How have you not seen this?” responses. Before I get into my review, I thought I’d say a little bit about how it came to be that I haven’t seen it, and for that matter, why so many people expect everyone to have done so.
It’s a Wonderful Life has a colorful rights history. Released in 1946, it was not a commercial success, though it did have a fair amount of critical acclaim (which included five Oscar nominations, Best Picture among them). It was released by Liberty Pictures, who were later bought out by Paramount. The rights to the film would bounce between different owners over the decades, but a critical juncture happened in 1974, when National Telefilm Associates neglected to renew the copyright due to a clerical error. This put the images from the film in the public domain, and television stations took advantage of the reduced cost to air it multiple times during the Christmas season — turning it into a beloved holiday classic. In 1993, Republic Pictures (then the owners of the film) successfully argued in court that the film — while no longer directly under copyright itself — should still be protected as a derivative work of the short story “The Greatest Gift”, which was still under copyright and to which they also had the rights. This marks one of the few times something has effectively been taken out of the public domain.
Without taking a survey, I expect feelings on the fairness of that are mixed.
There’s some good and bad to the whole thing, of course. It’s no longer available on every station because the rights are more expensive now (stations did still have to pay some royalties during public domain period because of the rights to the story.) More pertinently, the broadcast rights are now limited to just one station, usually NBC. On the plus side, this does mean stations have to work a little harder at providing a variety of shows. Additionally, having the rights held exclusively by the owning studio (which is now Paramount again) means the studio has the incentive to remaster and release the film on DVD, meaning that people don’t have to pick between questionable amateur copies and waiting for the Criterion collection to give it a shot (which I have no doubt they would have done eventually had the film’s derivative copyright not been established.)
Now how does all this affect my viewing of the film? Well, my father is one of those people who isn’t a big fan of the film. Meanwhile, one of his best friends considers it the greatest Christmas film of all time. So during those years when the film was a ubiquitous part of television’s seasonal offerings, my father grew more than a little sick and tired of it; it was hard enough to avoid on his own television, and if he visited his friend he could guarantee it would be on. So as I was growing up, It’s a Wonderful Life was never shown on my family’s television — and by the time I was old enough to have some control over my own viewing choices, it was no longer so widely available. NBC only shows it a couple times during the season, and it’s pretty easy to miss it, especially as one showing is always on Christmas Eve, a bit of a busy night for me. (Besides, that’s when A Christmas Story is airing. Gotta see Ralphie put his eye out.)
George putting his ear out isn’t as funny.
Nevertheless, I finally finagled my way into seeing the film this year, and ahead of Christmas Eve as well.
The story should be familiar to just about everybody, including those who haven’t seen it — as I mentioned above, it’s parodied, homaged, and referenced a dozen or more times every year. George Bailey is a man who has spent years sacrificing his own personal dreams for the sake of the people of his town, running the local building and loan operation while staving off the advances of greedy bank manager Henry Potter. One Christmas Eve, it looks as if he’s going to lose everything — his business, the respect of the town, his freedom and most importantly his family — as $8000 (a fortune in those days) has gone missing from the building and loan’s accounts. In despair, he feels as if his life has been meaningless, and wishes he was never born — and an angel named Clarence shows him how important his life really is by letting him have a glimpse of the world without him.
A simple enough tale on the face of it, and suitably heartwarming. James Stewart is perfectly cast as George Bailey; he can show the strength of character that Bailey has without coming across too strong, and his hesitant speech and self-effacing mannerisms drive home the idea that George never really understands just how much of a presence he really is in the community. Stewart is one of the all-time great actors, and he puts on a range of emotion here, from joy to despair, and is downright frightening at the moment when George completely breaks. Donna Reed, playing his wife Mary, has terrific chemistry with Stewart, and although she’s a secondary character at most by the needs of the story, she gets a fair amount of screen time and a few witty lines. Clarence Oddbody is played by Henry Travers, who gives him a somewhat baffled air as a bit of a bumbler; always congenial but it’s easy to see how George isn’t immediately convinced that he’s dealing with an angel.
The absent-minded professor attire may be a bigger hindrance than the lack of wings.
Lionel Barrymore plays the villain, Henry Potter, and shows why he’s often listed among the classic screen actors. Though he doesn’t actually get a lot of lines, he convincingly portrays a character who is vile simply by the sheer intensity of his pettiness and greed — Ebenezer Scrooge without a hope of redemption. There are also a lot of side characters, as befits a story about how much of an impact the main character has. They’re all played wonderfully by various character actors, and have a lot of charm to them.
From a cinematic standpoint, the film is very well done — as should be expected from Capra, who had directed several films by this point, many of which are every bit as critically acclaimed. There are no wasted shots, and the timing and framing of everything is spot-on. It’s one of those films that manages to get your attention with how visually strong it is without ever distracting from the story itself. Reading up on it, I discovered that Capra had pioneered a new technique for making artificial snow for this film; it’s very convincing (at least in a black and white film) and is used to great dramatic effect.
Is It’s a Wonderful Life a perfect film? No. There are elements of the story that I found lacking. It’s just a little slow in the beginning, as by necessity it has to set the stage by showing how the world has been affected by George being in it before it gets to the critical juncture of showing the world without George. And there were certain parts of the alternate timeline that I felt didn’t have the right emotional impact or were unconvincing; not many, but a few (while I can understand being upset at seeing Mary single and alone, it’s a little strange — at least for someone watching in 2012 — to see the 25-year-old Donna Reed referred to as “an old maid”). I also wouldn’t have minded seeing some comeuppance for the villain, one way or another. It’s easy to see how, under ordinary circumstances, this would have been a film that would have been remembered, but not the tier-1 Christmas classic it’s now revered as. But it’s also easy to see how, under the circumstances that actually happened, it became so highly regarded.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that it’s easy to see different possibilities diverge from its strange history.