Is it really a wonderful life? Hmmm…

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Tonight, on Christmas Eve, the Stanford Theater on University Avenue is showing Frank Capra‘s It’s a Wonderful Life, as usual.

I will not be going.  You have to book ages in advance, long before you have sorted your plans out – or had any thoughts about Christmas at all – otherwise it is sold out before you arrive at the ticket counter.  After all, it is an annual ritual, a “heart-warming Christmas film,” “a sentimental favorite” … or is it?

I’m reminded of the New York Times article, by Wendell Jamieson, of a few years’ vintage:

A terrifying, asphyxiating story?

“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.

Jamieson has it wrong on some points:  relinquishing dreams is an inevitable part of growing up.  You can’t be a brain surgeon, a stand-up comedian and a playboy with a yacht. You won’t be 6’4″ if you’re destined to be 5’5,” and you can’t marry all the handsome men who ask you out.  Making one choice necessarily means sacrificing others, and there are worse choices than George Bailey’s marrying a pretty, adoring girl, keeping his dad’s business going, and dutifully being a kind father and a good citizen.

Jamieson’s general theme seems to be catching on, however. In a critique of modern Christmas films, “Too Many Turkeys from Tinseltown,” Mike Shaw in London’s Independent also discusses  “the ‘feel-good family favourite’ and regular winner of polls to find the public’s favourite Christmas film”:

Picture the scene: It’s a wild and snowy night. A man stands on a bridge, staring into the icy river rushing below him and contemplating his life. We have already been witness to extortion, fraud and domestic abuse. Over the next hour, this man’s little brother will drown, and our character will plunge into depression, assault a police officer and crash his car while drunk. …

The fact that It’s a Wonderful Life is a tad downbeat is nothing new. For decades, the film has attracted as many humbugs as it has admirers, by virtue of it being “too depressing”. Love it or hate though, there is no denying that by the end of Frank Capra’s film that elusive warm fuzzy feeling is well and truly kindled.

"Business! Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!"

However, if a good Christmas movie can be judged by how Christmassy it makes you feel (Christmassy being a complex scientific measurement best described to the layman as “happy, hopeful and harmonious with a slight tinge of sadness”), then modern festive films fail on almost every count, and I know why.

Simply put, they’re just not miserable enough. By playing it safe and desperately trying to not upset or offend anyone, Christmas films today miss the key element required for success: despair and salvation – the light at the end of the tunnel.

Maybe.  But this week’s Yahoo poll on the favorite Christmas film of all time has me questioning public taste. 137,444 voted, and came out with It’s a Wonderful Life pulling 44 percent of the votes, Miracle on 34th Street with 30 percent, and A Christmas Carol coming out with a mere 26 percent.  Perhaps no surprise, considering the crappy screen versions of the Charles Dickens classic.

For all-out scariness, I’ll still plump for A Christmas Carol, the (admittedly stagey) 1951 English version, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge and a very young Michael Hordern as a Marley.  Hordern’s eerie howling and chain-shaking will frighten the bejeebers out of any smarmy kid. And Sim is the best Scrooge yet.

Better yet, try the book.

Postscript:  CNN has an op-ed on the Capra film today, here.


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2 Responses to “Is it really a wonderful life? Hmmm…”

  1. tetsuo Says:

    Good story for Christmas anyway..

  2. Mafel Says:

    It is one of my favorite scene in this movie.
    I almost forgot what it was called~ thanks for sharing.
    I think I better watch it again.

    Mafel from bouture rosier 

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