First things first, now that some of us have reached the festive 12-day season we've all been waiting for -- Merry Christmas! This raises another question for me, a media question covered in a nice way the other day by a feature in the Los Angeles Times. So, have you watched It's a Wonderful Life yet this year?
I mean, have you watched the whole movie, not just the final act that begins with the arrival of the pudgy angel and the memorable flashback that shows George Bailey what the world would have been like if he never had been born.
Most people who think that Frank Capra's masterpiece is a sappy piece of Christmas sentiment are, in fact, people who have only watched the end of the movie over and over back in the days when grainy old copies were shown over and over on cable television, usually starting the weekend of Thanksgiving or before. We're luckier these days, because It's a Wonderful Life is being taken a bit more seriously, thanks to good DVD copies and NBC locking up the franchise with its once-a-year Christmas Eve broadcast.
This leads me to the Stephen Cox freelance piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 23. This feature even notices that this movie had real religious meaning for Capra, a pretty serious Catholic and old-fashioned Democrat, and Stewart, who returned from World War II as a serious Presbyterian and a changed man. Thus, we learn:
It's all the more remarkable that this homespun movie, which was not initially envisioned as a "holiday" film, has become so entrenched in popular culture, such a beloved tradition for families to share.
Oddly enough, the film was unceremoniously released during Christmas week of 1946. Never mind the yuletide flavor, the wintry snowdrifts in Bedford Falls and the holly wreath George Bailey carries slung around his arm -- this Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed romance was originally scheduled to open in January 1947. But RKO Studios knew it had something special and rushed it into theaters a few weeks early to meet the deadline for Academy Award consideration that year.
. . . In media interviews at the time, Capra did not portray it as a holiday film. In fact, he said he saw it as a cinematic remedy to combat what he feared was a growing trend toward atheism and to provide hope to the human spirit. In a moment of possible revisionism decades later, Capra said that he also realized that with the holiday season comes an inherent vulnerability in all humans, and that this uplifting tale might just ride on that sentiment.
The one crucial point that the feature fails to make is that the movie was not, at first, a hit.
Even back in the "good old days" of American Christmas myth, audiences found the movie's first acts too bleak and dark, with Bailey making sacrifice after sacrifice as he fights powers of unrestrained greed and take-what-you-can-take capitalism. That old building and loan plot was dear to the heart of the progressive Capra.
But this is a movie that actually takes faith and religious symbolism seriously. It's true that the American Film Institute named Capra's flick the most inspiring motion picture ever made. But it is also one of the most important Christmas, and thus Christian, movies ever made. There is more to Christmas than parties and the mall, and this is a fact often missing from Christmas media, news and otherwise.
Cox even dares to compare the movie to another famous work of Christian drama:
As holiday classics go, "It's a Wonderful Life" has become the American version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Scrooge is portrayed in the form of blowhard heavy Henry Potter (the great Lionel Barrymore); Clarence the Angel (Henry Travers) can be considered the ghostly visitor who illustrates to George what life would have been like without him; and Zuzu Bailey (Karolyn Grimes) is a more sprite version of Tiny Tim, casting cheer into the night as the story comes to a triumphant close.
It's interesting to note that James Maitland Stewart, who died in 1997 at age 89, was indeed a man of faith, a practicing Presbyterian, and himself a firm believer in heavenly help, as his grave marker in Glendale's Forest Lawn cemetery attests: "For He shall give His angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways." According to his daughter, Kelly Stewart Harcourt, that engraved passage from Scripture was something Stewart's father had pointed out to him when the young actor went off to war and served as a fighter pilot.
So read Cox's story and then fire up the DVD and watch the movie -- all of it.
Pay attention to all of its weary, almost hopeless prayers as well as the explosion of joy at the end. Like I said, this actually is a Christmas movie. And Christmas includes the dark that comes before the light.