I am not ashamed to admit it. I cry every single time I see it. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is, hands down, my all time favorite movie and I never tire of it.
But why? Why in the world does a 67-year-old black and white fantasy film affect me (and millions of others) this way? Well, last night I think I found the answer.
Last night I saw my hero George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the big screen in my local movie theater. I had never seen it in the theater. My local theater was playing a special one-performance presentation. I expected to be in the theater with a half a dozen people.
But no. It was full. Completely full. People willing to pay to see it, despite the fact it is run on T.V. each year during the holiday or available on DVD (yes I own it). An entire theater full of people paid to watch it, despite all that.
Having never watched the film with a crowd before, I was acutely aware of the response of the audience throughout the film. All the funny and corny parts that I cherish and giggle at; they did too. All the sappy and tear-jerker parts I sigh at and cry at; they did too. It was incredible to realize I was not alone in this club of “Life” lovers.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was released in December 1946, based on the original story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. Although the film was nominated for five Oscars (it won zero), it was considered a flop in its first release and did not even break even for the studio.
I never saw the film until the early 1980’s. I’m not sure when I saw it the first time…but I know I saw the remake “It Happened One Christmas” with Marlo Thomas BEFORE I ever saw the original. Sometime in the 1970’s the original began appearing on network television during the holiday season and found an audience looking to be transported back to a simpler time, and a classic was born.
Director Frank Capra apparently never intended it as a Christmas story, but today it is totally identified with the holiday season around the world. Critics slammed the film on release for its sentimental small-town mentality, filled with simple minded small-town characters – exactly what the public has grown to love today in our fast-paced and impersonal world.
If you live in a small town like I do, you can easily identify with both Bedford Falls and Pottersville. Every small town has an egotistical hot-shot who throws his money around (Potter). Mine sure does. And every small town is full of hard-working everyday people just trying to get by. Mine sure is. And in George Bailey’s story we see ourselves. Our flaws and mistakes, our triumphs and tragedies. The story of how life happens while you are dreaming and making other plans. It is the story of us. And there is no shame in that.
You love the characters and you know the lines. You hate the villain and you cheer for the underdog. Who doesn’t love an underdog? The success of “It’s a Wonderful Life” today is a testament to how average people see themselves as underdogs. All we really want is to make a difference and live happily ever after. And if along the way we can help a befallen angel get his wings, well, as my friend George Bailey would say “what’d ya know about that?”
Merry Christmas everybody! Merry Christmas!