Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The First Time I Saw "It's a Wonderful Life"

It was a frigid night, Dec. 31, 1979. Thirty-two years have passed, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I had sulked-in to my empty apartment after yet another forgettable New Year’s Eve “celebration” with dozens of other lonely singles trying to mask our insecurities with loud music, bland party food, and tepid alcohol. I even made out with a girl I’d only met an hour earlier when the clocks and calendars made the big change. We played tonsil hockey for a while, but it was apparent that neither of our hearts were really invested.

My three roommates were out of town for the holidays and our place was somber. The existential ache made me restless despite the advanced hour. I flopped down on my bed and stared at the ceiling for a few moments; my deep sighs undergirded by the muted beating of my blue heart.

What am I doing with my life? What has it amounted to? I muttered to myself. In the stillness I pondered what Kierkegaard said, “We make merry noise at the beginning of each new year to distract ourselves from the macabre sound of grass growing over our graves.” The silence was deafening…an oppressive weight.

I leaned over to the dresser next to my bed and flipped-on the ten inch Zenith black and white TV to further distract my soul. I don’t know what I was expecting to find at 2:40 AM. There were only seven channels to choose from in Chicago back then, and several of them were already in test-pattern mode. But when I clicked over to Channel 32 on the UHF dial, I saw the beaming grin of Jimmy Stewart as he was describing the size of a globetrotting suitcase.

Oh, good ol’ Jimmy…I like the characters he plays, I thought. I always had an affinity for Stewart for his acting and choice of roles, but also because I was born in the same little hospital room in Indiana, PA that he was. My early years were spent in that county seat located an hour east of Pittsburgh, and always smiled in the realization that he had maintained that distinctive accent: “Awwww shucks. Whaaat’s in that bwox? “

Whether it was light comedy like The Philadelphia Story and Harvey, or westerns like Winchester 73 and Who Shot Liberty Valance, or dramas like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Rear Window, I loved the pathos that Jimmy brought to the screen. Having seen dozens of his films, many multiple times, I thought I was well versed on his repertoire. But as I watched for several minutes I realized I had never seen this one before. I didn’t have a TV Guide, and had no idea how far into the movie I was (turns out I had missed the first ten minutes or so).

Being drawn into the story of this loveable George Bailey, I crawled under my bedspread and settled-in. After one of the commercial breaks finished, an announcer said, “We now return to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Hmmm, you learn something new every day, I thought. I had never heard of this one, but I was intrigued with how the narrative was unfolding: this likeable Everyman who kept making sacrifices for others but was feeling trapped by circumstances not allowing him to break out and do all that he had been dreaming of for decades.

I also found Donna Reed extremely fetching as Mary. Being a baby-boomer, I was quite aware of her television days as an All-American mom on The Donna Reed Show in the late fifties/early sixties, but had never seen her in her mid-twenties like in this film. What a dish! But beyond her lovely charms, I found myself drawn to her character, Mary Hatch, because of her humility, common sense, and commitment.

Different scenes with George registered with me on that first viewing:

  • - Interacting with his dad at the dinner table as they discussed breaking out of preconceived expectations.
  • - The kissing scene with Mary while they are sharing a phone receiver was so much more passionate and meaningful than the French session I had earlier that night that cute blonde.
  • - Dressing-down Mr. Potter while defending his father’s honor.
  • - Reasoning with clients not to lose hope at the Building and Loan when another bank run hit in 1933.
  • - Being greeted by his new bride in their formerly “haunted” home.
  • - His flaring temper while yelling at Uncle Billy over losing the money, as well as losing it with his children and then destroying all the architectural models and maps he had of his dreams in his den.
  • - Praying through tears at Martini’s Bar, then promptly getting punched in the mouth. “That’s what I get for praying,” he mumbled as he got off the floor from the blow.
  • - Once he is granted his wish that he’d never been born he begins to realize the interconnectedness of our lives.
  • - His wild gratefulness upon the dissipation of the frightening vision of a world without his life.
  • - The sheer exultation of all his friends and family so willing to come to his aid in a grave time of need.
  • - At the end, the celebration of a community.

As the film came to a close with that message from Clarence, his guardian angel, that “No man is a failure who has friends,” the tears were rolling down my cheeks. What a reminder that what we give for others is much more satisfying than anything we can try to posses or attain on our own.

The next day I drove over to my folk’s house for a New Year’s Day dinner, and asked them if they had ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life?

“Oh my, yes,” my Mom said. “That’s a good one, but most people have forgotten it.”

I set about researching everything I could find on this Capra classic. It was the first film Stewart did after returning from service in World War II. And even though it did reasonable business at the box office and received nice reviews, it was hardly a hit during its theatrical release. As the years passed, Stewart did dozens more films, and It’s a Wonderful Life was simply a slight blurb in his massive list of cinematic accomplishments, and all but forgotten by the time the 70s rolled around.

But then, with the proliferation of UHF stations coming on the scene, many programmers were looking to fill slots at holiday time. The folks at Liberty Films, who originally financed It’s a Wonderful Life, had failed to re-register their copyright, and the film became “public domain” in 1973. So, these upstart stations could air a film like that without having to pay any royalties. With each passing year, another few stations would add it into their holiday line-ups. It wasn’t considered one of Stewart’s big hits, so it was relegated to ultra-late night viewings.

And that’s what I stumbled across on that icy evening over three decades ago. I began telling all my friends about it. I located articles, interviews, short documentaries, and eventually a book that included the entire script and hundreds of photos from behind the scenes. More and more stations began playing it each season, and legions of others were discovering it for the first time as well. By the late 80s, it was considered essential Christmastime viewing by most everyone I know. In Stewart’s pantheon on great performances, it is now hailed as his best and most beloved. Writer/Director Frank Capra made many other Oscar-winning films. But he came to embrace It’s a Wonderful Life as his most treasured offering.

I’ve seen it at least forty times, and can recite nearly every line word for word. And it has now come full-circle in that it is once again gracing the silver screen at theaters across the country every Christmas season. There’s nothing like seeing it at Nashville’s historic Belcourt Cinema with hundreds of others all reveling in the common bonds of friendship, steadfastness, and sacrifice that are modeled so powerfully in this gift of a film. As the house lights come up with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” and the Christmas bells ringing-out the exultation of a life well lived, most of us are wiping away tears of joy as we all smile knowingly to each other.

If you’d like to join me in seeing it yet again this year in Nashville, come to the Belcourt’s 7 PM showing (one of over two dozen in the week leading up to Christmas) on Friday, Dec. 23rd. We’ll meet in the lobby at 6:40 to try to sit together. Afterwards we’ll adjourn to Fido’s for coffee or hot chocolate to discuss what this movie stirs in each of us. To find out how to order tix in advance (recommended) go here:

Let me know if you’re coming so I can be on the lookout for ya. : )

No comments:

Post a Comment