Major anniversary for an American classic: The 'It's a Wonderful Life' arguments roll on

In about a week, Seneca Falls, N.Y., will be hosting a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the release of filmmaker Frank Capra's classic (more to come on that adjective) Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

This town was the model, in many ways, for Capra's vision of the fictional Bedford Falls, home of the angry, but blessed, dreamer named George Bailey, portrayed in the film by the great Jimmy Stewart. Some of the events will be held, I am sure, at the town's It's a Wonderful Life Museum

I wrote about the ongoing interest in this film this week in my On Religion column for the Universal syndicate, after interviewing Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus and digging through my old copies of "The It's a Wonderful Life Book" and "The Name Above the Title," Capra's chatty, but at times philosophical autobiography.

That led to this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), in which host Todd Wilken and focused on a two-part question: (1) Is there any real news in the anniversary of this film and (2), while we are at it, what are journalists to make of the fact that "It's a Wonderful Life" remains so popular AND controversial?

Well, I think it's likely that some feature writers will cover the Seneca Falls events as a hook for coverage of the anniversary -- period. However, the real question is whether anyone will probe deeper, exploring the debates that have raged about this film since it was first released (and flopped at the box office).

What kind of debates? That's where you get into the details of Capra's whole worldview -- which is both Catholic and fiercely American -- and the film's unique blend of stark darkness, even anger, and light. The key is that you really need to watch the whole movie, not just the joyful end of the famous final act.

As a clue to the contents of the podcast, let's compare two different views of this movie. First, there is this material from the values section of the Vatican's Best Films List:

This well-known film directed by Frank Capra is made great by the acting of Jimmy Stewart as a genuinely good man who resigns himself to having all of his life plans thwarted by his duty to his community and family. Sometimes vocation is more about doing one’s duty than fulfilling one’s desires. It is only when Stewart’s character submits entirely to his calling, and sees what good he has done for others in his life, that he realizes that his life has been worth living.
Another theme of the movie is limits: the limits of human knowledge and acts and the limits on wealth and control one needs to have. It embodies Catholic social teaching as it shows how small-scale local communitarian aid is better for the community than large-scale business, which tends to be greedy and oppressive.
Finally, please note that the Angelology of the film is controversial: we disagree with one another as to whether it could be in accord with Catholic orthodoxy.

That last line? Hollywood has long thought that good people, when they die, have a chance to become angels, as opposed to saints. Why is that? Beats me.

Now, compare that view of the film with these quotes from a rather complex 2008 -- yes, that recent -- essay in The New York Times by Wendell Jamieson (who is now the newspaper's Metro editor):

The headline: "Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life."

First there is this:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

Later on, there is this:

Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls -- the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

By all means, read it all. It's kind of a blue-zip-code tribute to what needs to happen in red zip codes. Sort of.

The bottom line: Capra's vision of the meaning of life has always been controversial and I would argue that his emphasis on the ultimate values of faith, family, sacrifice, grace and redemption are at the heart of that.

Capra, of course, read the critics -- when the film was released and later. Thus, this is how my column ends:

In his autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” Capra stressed that his film “wasn’t made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati” and defended it in explicitly biblical terms.
This was, he wrote, a “film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, ‘Heads up, fella.’ ... A film that expressed its love for the homeless and the loveless; for her whose cross is heavy and him whose touch is ashes; for the Magdalenes stoned by hypocrites and the afflicted Lazaruses with only dogs to lick their sores.”
It’s all there in the first frames of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as the hero’s friends and loved ones are heard whispering prayers during his crisis.
“I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father.”
“Joseph, Jesus and Mary. Help my friend Mr. Bailey.”
“Help my son George tonight.”
“He never thinks about himself, God, that’s why he’s in trouble.”
“Please, God. Something’s the matter with Daddy.”
The stars twinkle and the powers of heaven act.
“This is a movie about faith, family, sacrifice and redemption,” said Greydanus. “But there’s a bigger picture here, and that’s the intercession of the saints. ... George Bailey really had a wonderful life and all of the people he touched call out on his behalf. Their prayers are heard and God sends help.
“There’s nothing cynical and ironic about it. That’s why this movie still connects with people.”

There's more to say, but: Enjoy the podcast.

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