Christmas traditions include stories. It starts with the Gospel of Luke and the first Christmas story. From 1843 we have Dickens' immortal tale of redemption and charity in A Christmas Carol. Over the years many movies have added to our emotional connection to the holiday and none more so than 1946s It's a Wonderful Life.
The first post-War project for director Frank Capra and star James Stewart had great meaning for them. After the harrowing years of WW2 where Capra's Army work included the documentary series Why We Fight, and Stewart's honoured years with the Air Force, it was in the spirit of both men to create something that would celebrate hope and optimism without ignoring the sombre realities of life. It's a Wonderful Life would also be the first film from Liberty Films which Frank Capra formed with producer Samuel Briskin and William Wyler and George Stevens in an effort to break free of the creative control of the major studios. Upon its release the film received five Oscar nominations and was a top ten film from the National Board of Review. The movie was placed on the National Film Registry in 1990.
For many people It's a Wonderful Life, through its annual television showings throughout the 70s, has become as natural a part of Christmas as decorating a tree. Set at Christmastime, a time when many of us take stock and learn to deal with our regrets and count our blessings, It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of one George Bailey accepting that although he is not living the life he dreamed, it does not mean that his life isn't truly wonderful. It is a simple truth that one life touches so many others.
I have heard some people proclaim that It's a Wonderful Life is the only "black and white" or "old" movie that they watch. Of course, how they could watch the magic of Capra's directing, the involving Hackett & Goodrich screenplay and the emotionally truthful performances and not want to watch more "old" movies is beyond me, but at least they have It's a Wonderful Life. Or do they?
"And here's the jewel of my collection, purchased for a king's ransom
from a one-eyed man in Istanbul. ... I give you Zuzu's petals."
When I worked in offices I was that girl who decorated her desk in wrapping paper and obnoxiously sang Jingle Bells at the photocopier. Part of my decorating included placing the above Gary Larson tribute to It's a Wonderful Life from The Far Side in a prominent place on any handy bulletin board. There was one particular boss who was a woman who required delicate handling, if at all. It was best to avoid her if possible and most tried their best to stick to that plan. She was the sort of woman that when she finally parted ways with the company Security was asked to deny her access to the building. She stared at the Larson panel, shaking her head in disapproval of my sense of humour.
"I don't get this," she said. "Is it supposed to be funny?"
I was shocked that she didn't get the reference, so helpfully began an explanation. "There's a Frank Capra movie from 1946 called It's a Wonderful Life..."
"I know It's a Wonderful Life", she snapped. "I watch it every year."
Where do you go from there? I think I waved my hand around and mumbled "Zuzu's petals" ineffectually as she sighed heavily and stomped off to her office, slamming the door. The other employees smiled sheepishly at each other. We shrugged our shoulders in silence and tiptoed to our desks and offices. Sensing that discretion was indeed the better part of valour I removed the offending Far Side and it was never mentioned again.
1875 - 1958
The Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto has been operating as a legitimate theatre for 106 years and is truly a gem of a venue. The theatre's hallways and stairwells are filled to overflowing with head shots of the notables who have appeared on its stage for over a century. It is my greatest joy during intermissions to stroll among the stars of bygone eras. On this particular evening a friend and I were attending a production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. My friend is not a theatre buff and was getting a little bored so I searched for someone on the wall that she might know and spotted the kindly, sympathetic face of H.B. Warner. I first ascertained that my friend did indeed watch It's a Wonderful Life every year with her family. They wouldn't miss it.
"This gentleman", I said, "is H.B. Warner. He played Mr. Gower."
"Who?" she asked.
"Mr. Gower, the druggest," I replied. My friend still looked puzzled so I continued, "Mr. Gower, the druggest. George's first boss. The man who got drunk when his son died and almost sent the wrong medicine and slapped George." Still no recognition from my friend. "In Pottersville he was the rummy that got thrown out of Nick's place."
My friend offered that I must be getting confused with one of the other old movies that I watch because she didn't remember anything like that in It's a Wonderful Life. She then returned to our seats. A solicitous usher had observed the exchange and the two of us spent the rest of the intermission in search of Cornelia Otis Skinner. Her picture. Her ghost. We were prepared for anything under the watchful gaze of the kindly, sympathetic face of H.B. Warner.
When your friends, co-workers, neighbours or the chatty lady in line at the supermarket talk about how much they look forward to It's a Wonderful Life every year, simply smile in agreement. Do not mention Zuzu's petals or Mr. Gower or Uncle Billy's late wife's name or Sam Wainwright's catchphrase. Do not start to sing Buffalo Gal and expect them to join in. It might crush your soul.