Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Holiday Movie That's Relevant For All Seasons

There are two movies I routinely enjoy watching this time of year — the 1952 version of “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim, my favorite portrayal of Charles Dickens’ miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, and Frank Capra’s “It's A Wonderful Life,” a timeless, feel-good classic, which has been perennially broadcast on NBC between Thanksgiving and Christmas for the past several years. I own DVD copies of both, and prefer to view them, minus intrusive commercial breaks, which in a three-hour TV time slot results in almost 50 minutes of ads and promo spots.                 
I’ve been a fan of the 1946 film "It's A Wonderful Life" ever since I saw it on television about 35 years ago. Shortly thereafter, due to a copyright lapse, the Oscar-nominated movie wound up in the public domain because no one considered an old black and white movie valuable enough to renew it. However, as cable companies steadily emerged, initially in the suburbs and rural communities, “It’s A Wonderful Life” was frequently telecast during the holiday season by local stations or cable companies that did not have to pay fees or residuals and, therefore, pocketed whatever advertising dollars they accrued.
Ironically, it was most likely the copyright oversight that resulted in the movie, which was not an audience favorite when it was theatrically released and subsequently failed to win an Academy Award, gaining newfound popularity with fresh generations of movie fans.
In the mid-80s, with the emergence of home videos, old movies suddenly became valuable assets and, since no one had ownership of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” there was an excess of low-quality copies available until the copyright dilemma was resolved in the 90s, after it had become an annual favorite of millions of movie lovers.
When the title is fully realized in the final scene, which has been known to bring tears to the eyes of women and men of all ages, the movie closes as a poignant and inspiring slice of Americana. Up until that point, its earlier, darker themes of one man's shattered ambition closely parallel persistent harsh economic times and a nation at war — not exactly the elements audiences expect in a holiday movie. Yet, despite a suicide attempt and its sometimes Dickensian bleakness — like “The Christmas Carol” — “It's A Wonderful Life” ultimately offers an frank message of faith and redemption.
 Less than a decade ago, with a shaky outlook, “It’s A Wonderful Life” was more relevant to what was happening in America, an economy mired in a recession, a lingering financial crisis, thousands out of work and a record number of ongoing home foreclosures,
Above all, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is different from today’s usual big screen productions. The 70-year-old film features few special effects and fewer action sequences. And, to the dismay of some younger filmgoers, it was produced in glorious black and white that they tend to shun.
The basic plot revolves around responsible family man George Bailey — splendidly portrayed by Jimmy Stewart — who is dejected by the life he fell into, and the disappointment of not fulfilling the wanderlust he once possessed. Then, he faces his ultimate predicament, an inadvertent financial scandal, due to no fault of his own, in a rendering of the American Dream gone awry.
When Bailey opts for suicide on Christmas Eve, so his family can inherit his modest life insurance policy (a script flaw since life insurance is rarely issued to beneficiaries in the event of the insured person's death), a heavenly messenger, striving to be a full-fledged angel, arrives to show him what the world would have been like if he had never been born.
The film's climactic line
Without him, his hometown of Bedford Falls, a fictional upstate New York community, is named Potterville for the greedy town patriarch. And Bailey witnesses a milder version of what Times Square was like for decades — strip joints, bars and gambling joints thrive — before it was transformed in the 90s.
Realizing he had “a wonderful life” all along, Bailey returns to find that in his fantasy absence, the townspeople save his business, making him “the richest man in town,” not for the money they generously donated, but for their precious friendship.
It still gets me every time “Auld Lang Syne” comes up at the end of the movie.
“It's A Wonderful Life” is entertaining for the whole family — though responsible parents may have to clarify its bleaker elements for preteens.
The movie’s underlying universal message of the movie is not only appropriate for this season, but — for a few hours anyway — it helps escape the harsh reality of troubled times that some may still experience.