Friday, December 13, 2013

Who's watching "It's a Wonderful Life"?

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 1970s, 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 and 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.

H.B. Warner
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.


  1. I have to admit something. I actually used to hate this movie. Since I got older though and rewatched the movie two years ago, it is a movie with a lot of merit. I have to rewatch it again.

  2. I find much depth to the storytelling. Each viewing lends itself to a different viewpoint and something new to appreciate.

  3. So what you're telling me is that if I try to talk about that moment when the squirrel sits on Uncle Billy's shoulder...? Right. Got it.

  4. As superlative, and poignant, and sobering an essay as the film, CW. Brava.

    I'd love to roam around that theater, by the way. So neat when they hang photos of the stars who appeared.

  5. Tracey, it's best to know your audience or risk a shock from which there is no recovery. They watch it every year!

  6. Jack, the Royal Alex would be your happy place. You'd get lost in those hallways and never want to return.

    One of my surprising finds was a picture of Harry Carey. It took me a while to track down the reason for his visit, but discovered he was touring as the dad in "Ah, Wilderness!". Perfect casting.

  7. Oh, this was great. Was you old boss Mrs. Potter? It has become quite fashionable to trash this film, but I believe in my heart of hearts those trashers are only trying to be cool. Put them in a room alone and I'll bet a tear or two will appear.
    Happy Holidays, CW!

  8. I loved the Far Side cartoon – hilarious! I hadn't seen it before.

    A couple of years ago, I dragged my husband to see this movie on the big screen. The theatre was PACKED and, during the final scene, everyone around me (me included) was sobbing. When the movie ended, everyone clapped. It was a wonderful theatre-going experience.

  9. It's so true, FlickChick. As prolific as sidewalk Santas this time of year brings out the crowd that is just too edgy for "It's a Wonderful Life". We know better!

  10. Ruth, the theatre screening sounds wonderful. Only hearts of stone could fail to be drawn into the world of Bedford Falls/Pottersville.

  11. Just one of the reasons to love this movie is that it's so quotable. You wait for opportunities to bark "Forgot my hat!" or inform somebody, "The middle one." And who hasn't knocked over a pile of pots and pans and yelled into the other room, "I'm all right! I'm a-a-a-l-l right!"

  12. "And who hasn't knocked over a pile of pots and pans and yelled into the other room, "I'm all right! I'm a-a-a-l-l right!" Who indeed?

    One year my youngest sister and I would answer the phone at our respective offices (when we knew it was us) with a line from "It's a Wonderful Life". I was working at police headquarters at the time when I shouted into the phone "One of us is going to jail; well, it's not gonna be me!"

  13. Okay, I'm going to admit something. I do remember H.B. Warner's character - I've always liked him and I instantly recognized the picture. But damn if I can remember anything about ZuZu's petals? What on earth? Please explain. I just don't remember. I've only seen the movie about ten times over the years. Though admittedly I haven't seen it lately. I'm sorry to disappoint you, m'dear. My memory just ain't what it used to be if it were every anything at all to begins with which I doubt. ;)

  14. Ah Yvette, you make my heart sad. (That's what my daughter said to me last week when I forgot something. Sigh.)

    George's youngest daughter, Zuzu, crushed a flower she had received as a prize at school. She asked her dad to "fix it". George stuck the petals in his pocket. Of course, there were no petals in Pottersville, but one of the signs that George had returned to his life was that he reached in his pocket and found "Zuzu's petals!".

    I think it's time for a re-watch, young lady.

  15. As much as I love the film, I took a pass on watching it this year. Thought I would give it a pass as it was becoming a tad stale for me.

    The local theater plays it twice a weekend and a friend saw it. She said the Sunday show was sold out and the lines formed around the block in 10 degree temperatures a good hour before the screening started. I was very pleased to hear that.

    So am looking forward to watching it next year. I just didn't want familiarity to breed contempt.

  16. What a great post!
    I watched It's a Wonderful Life just once, so maybe I have missed some detials (like H.B. Warner). But it is a great film, and it's incredible how such a hopeful piece came from two men involved in the war.
    I'm also the person always humming Christmas tunes and decorating my table!
    Kisses! Happy Holidays!

  17. A fabulous post about a wonderful (how else to describe it?) movie. I admit, though, that it was more "special" when I was one of the few people who had seen it--before it became a cultural phenomenon. There's a tendency sometimes for fame to ruin a good thing (likewise, I wish TBS would stop the all-day showings of A CHRISTMAS STORY). As for casual fans forgetting actors and details, I give them a little grace--perhaps because my movie memory isn't as sharp as it once was.

  18. Kevin, I too am not an "every year" viewer, but the film is so engrained in my memory that I don't even need to watch it. The last time was when my daughter actually sat and paid attention instead of just passing through the room. The way it held her attention reminded me of those first thrilling times.

  19. Le, I should have guessed you'd be a Christmas gal. I think "It's a Wonderful Life" is a fine movie that deserves to be cherished and remembered.

  20. Rick, I'm willing to give folks a pass (I blush at some of the movie related things I have forgotten), but not when they brag about watching something every year. If you're going to watch something then watch it, don't have it on in the background like white noise. It deserves better.



  Can you believe that winter and the Christmas holidays are practically here? It is time to get cozy and revel in some sweet-natured nostal...