It’s a Wonderful Life • Holiday Movies
Greenscreening Series #17
December 16, 2022
December 16, 2022
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An angel is sent from Heaven to save a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what the world would have been like if he had never existed.
Find It's a Wonderful Life via Reelgood
It's a Wonderful Life is the quintessential Holiday Film. Coming in the thick of Hollywood's newfound love for holiday films, the film was initially a massive commercial flop that ended director Frank Capra's hot streak, and his career never recovered. The film subsequently slipped into the public domain in the 1970s due to a clerical error. This led television networks, who were always looking for inexpensive material to broadcast, to begin screening the film over the holidays. Once more people began seeing the film, it became something of a holiday tradition. It's now beloved by many, just shy of the top 100 in Sight and Sound's 2012 directors poll. David O. Russell (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook) and Peter Ferrelly (Dumb and Dumber, Green Book) were among those who voted for the film.
It's a Wonderful Life is not without its detractors. After all, not everyone wants to watch a dark, gloomy film around Christmas. And It's a Wonderful Life is very dark until its famous conclusion, following George Bailey through one compromise and disappointment after another, leading up to a financial crisis that might land him in prison, and has him considering suicide. So why is this film the quintessential holiday classic? I think it's for three main reasons.
The film has one of the iconic endings in film history. After going through the ultimate Dark Night of the Soul, George Bailey realizes he has made the world a better place for the people he loves, returns to Bedford Falls, and learns that he's the richest man in town because of the depth of his relationships. And of course, his guardian angel, Clarence, gets his wings. Many filmmakers have paid homage to it, and many have parodied it. But no film earns its ending like It's a Wonderful Life - without the brutal gut-punches we experience leading up to it, the ending wouldn't be moving, it would be pure cheese. But with this ending, It's a Wonderful Life topped AFI's list of the most inspiring films in American history.
The film spends a lot of time dwelling on what's wrong with the world, and how far George's life has drifted from his dreams. I think people connect with this acknowledgment of life's disappointments and challenges, especially around Christmas. It's the end of the year, we're reminded of getting older, and being further from childhood. I'm not implying that everyone's deeply disappointed in their life; but nobody's life is entirely what they envisioned as a child. And there are a lot of sensory memories from childhood associated with Christmas, and a lot of nostalgia. Also, I don't know about you, but the end of the year always involves reflection and planning for next year, with the inevitable thinking about getting older. It's a Wonderful Life gives space to lament before providing some catharsis that our lives, like George Bailey's, aren't ruined by circumstance or compromise, but are wonderful - not because of what we've accomplished or experienced, but through the relationships we've built.
The film's mingling of despair and hope, darkness and joy mirrors the theological implications of Christmas. Christians celebrate Jesus's birth at Christmas because He was the promised savior for a broken world. Christmas and Good Friday and Easter are inseparable, so at Christmas there is joy, but also pain; light, but also darkness; and ultimately hope, but with waiting. In It's a Wonderful Life, joy and pain are also inseparable. You can't have the jubilant climax without understanding the depths of George's despair; it's a celebration with a cost.
It's a Wonderful Life and other holiday-themed films have become annual holiday traditions for many Americans, both religious and non-religious. Holiday Films are central to the seasonal preparation for and celebration of Christmas in American culture -- as essential as shopping for gifts, hanging decorations, and listening to Christmas music. It's easy to view Holiday Films as participating in the over-commercialization of Christmas, but to do so risks missing the reasons for the deep connection people feel for these films. It's beyond emotional - it's spiritual. Participation in organized religion has declined over the last century, but most Americans still celebrate Christmas, often in a secular form. Holiday films are part of the cultural liturgy of Christmas. And therefore, yet another answer to our recurring question in this series, "What is a movie," is movies can be a form of worship.
It's a Wonderful Life'_s director Frank Capra was one of the most successful directors of the 1930s and early 40s, winning three Best Director Oscars for _It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can't Take it With You (1938), with three additional nominations for Best Director. After serving in WWII making anti-Nazi films, Capra made It's a Wonderful Life as a tribute of what he saw as the sacrifices of ordinary Americans to defeat fascism and preserve democracy. But the film reflects a gloomy, grounded vision of postwar America. The forces of greed and opportunism, represented by Potter, threaten to overrun the forces of generosity, community, and decency represented by George Bailey. Even if Bailey recovers from the financial crisis, Potter is probably going to win. And yet - what Potter can't win are the true riches that George discovers, the riches of friendship and community. That this message still resonates with audiences 75 years later tells us something about the recurring tensions within American culture, and about our enduring idealism, and perhaps about our nostalgia.
It's worth noting that the film's perspective is at least wary of capitalism as embodied by Potter, if not outright socialist. This didn't go unnoticed during the Second Red Scare; after the film's premiere, the FBI created a detailed report on the film, highlighting its potential communist sympathies through storytelling techniques, which were smearing “values or institutions judged to be particularly American” in its portrayal of Potter, representative of traditional American banking, and using George Bailey's existential crisis as a “subtle attempt to magnify the problems of the so-called ‘common man’ in society.” The FBI referred the film to the House Un-American Activities Committee, who ultimately chose not to pursue Capra or attempt to censor the film.
From a cinematic perspective, the film isn't particularly noteworthy for groundbreaking techniques or artistry. Like Casablanca, it's the product of highly competent filmmaking from the Hollywood Studio System. Capra utilizes a clever framing device - the guardian angel learning George's backstory ahead of going down to earth to help him - but if anything, this makes the film feel a bit clunky structurally; the hook "a man learns the meaning of life by seeing what his world would be like if he never existed" is actually a fairly small por. Whether or not you connect with the film probably rests on how you feel about Jimmy Stewart's performance. His everyman persona can feel a bit corny, but for me, Stewart is brilliant in this film, especially as George descends into despair. After you watch the film, I highly recommend reading this appreciation of one of the film's pivotal scenes, which digs into the nuances of Stewart's performance and how he makes it look easy.
After it became a holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life was subject of a very public legal battle. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a movement to create color versions of classic black and white films, to make the classics more approachable to contemporary audiences. Quite a few actors, directors, and critics opposed this movement, including Jimmy Stewart. Frank Capra, however, supported and participated in colorizing for many of his films, and made an investment in Colorization Inc. to finance making a color version of It's a Wonderful Life, in exchange for creative oversight of the process and a share in the profits. However, since the film was in the public domain, Colorization Inc. returned Capra's investment and went ahead without him. Capra joined the opposition to colorizing films, and sued unsuccessfully to stop the process. A color version of It's a Wonderful Life exists, and was included in the 75th Anniversary Blu-Ray, though NBC continues to air the black and white, public domain version.
One of the issues with colorizing old films is that the color version of the film can get a new, separate copyright. With a film like It's a Wonderful Life, which has entered the public domain, the original creative team no longer stands to benefit financially from their work. The original work can be modified without the creators' input, and in some cases without benefitting the artists financially, so this is an ethically murky issue.
Colorization ultimately proved quite expensive, so several waves of interest in colorizing the back catalog of Hollywood's golden age mostly fizzled out, apart from the major bankable works. However, technology continues to advance in the area of digitally enhancing and restoring old film. Peter Jackson's documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) used artificial intelligence to add color and sound to WWI footage, to almost universal critical acclaim. On YouTube, you can find 4K, colorized versions of old actualities from the earliest days of film, created with the help of AI. We'll see if another wave of colorization comes around, now that more works are passing into the public domain.
Since this is one of the most-seen and most-beloved films of all time, much has been written about it. Recently, there have been some interesting readings of the film, ranging from "Pottersville is actually awesome" to "we're living in Pottersville" to "Mary is the real hero of It's a Wonderful Life." I think a lot of this is the result of many people actually having seen the film many times. This is the core of film criticism - instead of seeing a film once and deciding if you like it or not, or would recommend it to someone (that's reviewing a film, and it's what most "film critics" do), film criticism involves closely studying a film, seeing it several times, and seeking to better understand what's there, what it's saying, and how. Putting a film under a microscope to see its component parts, to more clearly see the whole, and applying various critical lenses in analyzing a film. For example, the Marxist reading of It's a Wonderful Life would focus on the struggle between the community and its greedy capitalist oppressor, Potter (which obviously, the FBI and HUAC were concerned about), while a feminist reading of the film would examine how Mary and the flirtatious Violet are depicted, and what the film has to say about being a woman in Bedford Falls around WWII (which wouldn't be very positive). I think it's interesting that It's a Wonderful Life has sparked the kind of pop film criticism usually reserved for contemporary films.
Holiday Movies are an important Hollywood genre, one that's given us some of the most-viewed and most-beloved films of all time. Holiday Films capitalize on the Christmas season for setting, themes, and distribution timing. It's a great time of year to go to the movies, or to watch movies. Lots of people have time off from work and school, people are generally feeling nostalgic and reflective, are getting together with friends and family and perhaps traveling. It’s cold in much of the country, so people are seeking indoor activities. And with people in the Christmas spirit, why not make films that connect with that spirit, and are about this unique time of the year?
Films about Christmas are nearly as old as the movies themselves. One of the earliest was The Night Before Christmas (1905), directed by Edwin S. Porter for Edison Studios. Recall that in those days, Edison Studios often adapted classic stories, as they were churning out a short film every day. The film used special effects that would make George Melies proud, showing Santa’s sleigh in flight over snowy mountains on its way to deliver presents. Santa is also a fairly adept carpenter in the early scenes, seeming to do most of the toy assembly himself rather than delegating to an army of elves. I'm not going to recommend the film, but if you're interested, the whole thing is on Wikipedia.
The classical era of holiday films began with Holiday Inn (1942), a musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as colleagues who operate a resort that’s only open on public holidays. The film was a vehicle for Irving Berlin’s music, and helped launch the song “White Christmas” as well as the Christmastime standard “Happy Holiday.” At the time, nobody really wrote and recorded secular Christmas songs, because there was skepticism about how well music would sell if people were only going to listen to it once a year. Berlin and the film's producers thought another song from the film, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” would be the big hit. Instead, "White Christmas" became the biggest selling single in history.
Holiday Inn was a massive hit as well, in the top 10 highest grossing films of 1942, and at the time one of the highest grossing musicals ever produced. Both the recording industry and film industry saw an opportunity in Christmas-themed product. Hollywood quickly followed with a string of holiday-themed films around Christmas, including several Bing Crosby films about good-natured priests, and the iconic Miracle on 34th Street (1947). John Ford even made a Christmas-themed Western with John Wayne, 3 Godfathers (1948), a loose retelling of the Three Wise Men story set in the Old West. Hollywood continued making a regular stream of Christmas-themed films through the 60s.
In the 1970s, with the advent of exploitation films, a new subgenre was born: Christmas-themed horror. Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) and Black Christmas (1974) are the most prominent examples of this genre, which still persists to this day, mostly direct-to-streaming.
The modern era of Christmas movies began in the mid-to-late 1980s. Films like Scrooged (1988), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), and of course Home Alone (1990), were massive box office hits. These films had a noticeably different tone from previous Holiday Films. They're snarky, often depicting family squabbles and misadventures around celebrating Christmas, and are also full of slapstick physical comedy. They seem to wink knowingly about the idea of hosting the perfect Christmas, this unattainable goal of recapturing some of the magic of Christmas from childhood.
Home Alone is probably most responsible for creating the modern Holiday Film. The film was an absolute box office sensation, number one for 12 consecutive weeks, and not only was it the highest grossing film of its year, it was at the time the third highest grossing film of all time, behind Star Wars and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. It was the highest grossing live action comedy for 20 years. The film spawned at least six sequels and reboots by my count (though I'm still waiting for Ke7in Comes Home Alone).
There are so many subgenres of Christmas movies out there. We've talked about films that would fit into a Christmas-as-comedic-disaster subgenre, the Christmas miracle subgenre (It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street), horror-at-Christmas, and the Christmas story retold, but there are also romantic comedies set at Christmas, Christmastime transformation / reorientation movies (from learning the true meaning of Christmas to literally becoming Santa Claus) and adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker. There are also hundreds of films with Christmastime as the setting, which can be lumped into a subgenre of Christmas movies, even though they're not explicitly about Christmas or Christmas themes.
Christmas movies have such a treasured spot in our culture that there's even debate about whether some movies qualify as Christmas movies. Take Die Hard for example, the internet's favorite annual debate. If you're unaware, Die Hard takes place at a company Christmas party. The internet debate is not merely "is it a Christmas movie," though... the argument pits "it's not a Christmas movie" vs. "It's The Greatest Christmas Movie Ever Made." I bring this up not to engage the debate - Christmas movie or not, Die Hard is awesome - but to point out that this genre is one of the most deeply personal for American moviegoers, and brings out some of the strongest opinions about movies.
Television and streaming are now responsible for producing the bulk of Holiday Films. Netflix and Hallmark are in an arms race to see who can develop the most romantic comedies set around Christmas, but all the streaming services are in the game as well. Bloomberg reported that streaming services have released over 150 new Holiday Films in November and December 2022. For context, pre-pandemic, the entire American movie industry typically released about 800 movies into theaters, including independents that play at a handful of theaters. These straight-to-streaming Holiday Films are the descendants of the B-movies of the Studio System, produced inexpensively, with very similar plots (involving royalty or small town / big city), using type actors, and generally filmed in the same locations (Vancouver), produced in a couple weeks.
Of course, with the end of year comes awards season in Hollywood, so Christmas became a natural time for studios to launch some of their more awards-focused fare, alongside the occasional tentpole film. This is the time for end-of-year "Best Of" lists, with a lot of last-minute entries timed to qualify for awards. Most of these films are not set around Christmas. Christmas movies are often counter-programming to this awards-focused fare, offering fairly straightforward and typically family-friendly escapism.
What films and television programs did you grow up watching around the holidays? Which do you still watch? As you've gotten older, have you carried on traditions or started any of your own?
Compare and contrast the jumps through time (and an alternate reality) with Citizen Kane. How does the frame story help or hinder your experience of the film?
Consider the details Capra chooses to show about George Bailey's life. Why does he focus on certain events and certain details?
What filmmaking techniques do you see present here, and which do you not? For example, chiaroscuro lighting, deep focus photography, location vs. studio shooting, montage, flashbacks/nonlinear narrative, static camera vs. moving camera.
The recurring motifs of travel, communication, and money. They're not as subtle as we've seen in other films. But pay attention to how Capra uses forms transportation and how information is communicated (phones, telegrams, handwritten notes). Also pay attention to how money is shown and how wealth is depicted. How do these motifs relate to George's story?
What do you make of the representations of men and women in the film? Many people (rightly) criticize the implication that Mary would end up the way she's depicted in the Pottersville sequence. What else do you notice about gender roles throughout the film?
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) directed by George Seaton One of the great Christmas classics. Features a young Natalie Wood as a girl who doesn't believe in Santa Claus until she meets the man her mother hired to play Santa in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, who claims he is the real Santa Claus.
The Apartment (1960) directed by Billy Wilder One of the classic "set at Christmas, not really about Christmas" Christmas movies. The Apartment is arguably Billy Wilder's sharpest comedies, a Best Picture winner. Jack Lemmon plays a Manhattan insurance clerk trying to rise in his company by letting its executives use his apartment for trysts, but complications and a romance of his own ensue.
A Christmas Story, directed by Bob Clark Every Christmas, this film is shown for 24 hours straight on cable television. It's the father of the "Christmas as familial disaster" subgenre. If you haven't seen the film, you probably should. Interestingly, it's a comedy from the director of the horror film, Black Christmas.
Home Alone (1990), directed by Chris Columbus For over 25 years, this was the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time. Every time I see it, I'm struck by how violent it is. Slapstick, yes, and not unlike the Saturday morning cartoons Kevin would probably watch. I like to imagine that the story is actually an invention of Kevin's imagination - that the criminals didn't actually come in, but are a projection of Kevin's fears about being left alone. I'd actually like it better if they didn't show his family's attempts to make it home from Paris.
Scenic Routes: It's a Wonderful Life from the AV Club
"It's a Wonderful Life": The most terrifying movie ever analysis in Salon
All hail Pottersville! analysis also in Salon, a decade earlier
No one dreamed of a ‘White Christmas’ before this song transcript of PBS Newshour broadcast discussing the song's influence
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