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Movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” not just holiday season staple, but work of art for all time


A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) ple...

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The first time I saw It’s a Wonderful Life I was overwhelmed by the pathos and beauty and unmitigated emotion of this film classic.  I was just getting serious about film in my late teens and I was watching public television one night when I stumbled upon this picture, one I had never heard of up to then. Being vulnerable to its unexpected charms and powers, I was completely taken by it.  I mean, I was mesmerized and moved so thoroughly by what I experienced that it remains one of the most potent experiences of my life.  I had just started programming a college film series on my campus and I immediately set out to find out all I could about this film and to book a 16 millimeter print of it for next semester’s series.  I screened the picture almost every Christmas for as long as I was involved with the college film series, which ended up being something like eight years.  I was so into film then that my volunteer work for the film program took up more of my time and energy and interest than my studies, and my grades suffered as a result.  I continued with the program even after I graduated, calling myself a consultant.  When I worked in public relations at an art museum I made sure to find a way to screen It’s a Wonderful Life there.  Sometimes I think the picture gets too narrowly categorized as a holiday staple, which it certainly is, but it’s far more than that.  It is a film masterpiece that transcends any particular season or theme or period. Like all masterpieces, it is timeless.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in advance of a revival screening.  If you have somehow managed not to see the film, then by all means do so.

 

Movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” not just holiday season staple, but work of art for all time

© by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Even with Christmas movies a genre all their own anymore, one stands above all the rest for its stand-the-test-of-time story about a desperate man who finds out that though poor in funds he’s rich in friends. That film is It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 drama starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Beulah Bondi, Henry Travers, Ward Bond, Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore.

The Frank Capra chestnut stands as one of the most beloved, chronicled and screened pictures in cinema history. Viewing this certified classic has become a staple of the holiday season for countless folks. It can be found on several television channels from late November through early January. Many movie buffs have a videotape or DVD copy of It’s a Wonderful Life in their home film library.

Seeing a film on TV is one thing. Seeing it on the big screen is another. Unless you saw the picture when it came out 61 years ago chances are you’ve never viewed it in a theater. Beginning in the ‘70s, the movie’s enjoyed a popular second life at revival houses, yet it’s seldom been run in these parts. One of those rare opportunities to catch It’s a Wonderful Life on the silver screen comes Saturday, Dec. 22 at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford has booked a pristine 35 millimeter print for a one night only showing as a benefit for the Dobleman Head and Neck Cancer Institute in Omaha.

As a homage to the film the Joslyn Fountain Court will be transformed into a set piece from the story’s mythical Bedford Falls, complete with a local dance troupe, Jitterbrats, doing the Charleston in vintage costumes. Memorabilia related to the film and to co-star Donna Reed will be on display courtesy of the Donna Reed Film Festival, an annual event in the late actress’s hometown of Denison, Iowa.

The screening is the highlight of an event-filled night, starting at 7 p.m., that will include comments from Crawford and special guest Karolyn Grimes, the former child actress who played the adorable Zuzu in the film.

Grimes was 6 when she made the Liberty Films project and RKO Radio Pictures release. The film came near the beginning of a short-lived career that saw Grimes appear in a handful of classics with Hollywood royalty. Besides It’s a Wonderful Life, she earned credits in: Sister Kenny with Rosalind Russell; Blue Skies with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven; John Ford’s Rio Grande with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara; and Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye. She also worked with icons Cecil B. DeMille, Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard (Unconquered), Fred MacMurray (Pardon My Past), Randolph Scott (Albuquerque) and Glenn Ford (Lust for Gold).

Grimes, who left the business at 12, went on to raise a family and work as a medical technician. She lives in the Seattle, Wash. area and travels the country as an “unofficial ambassador” for the film at screenings, festivals, conventions, et cetera.

Over the years the film’s become the subject of books, DVDs, documentaries, even a board game, as it’s attained pop culture, touchstone status.

All the fuss over it now is ironic. Even though considered a quality A title upon its release and one that enjoyed moderate box office and critical success — capped by Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor — the film was not the phenomenon it is today. But as years went by film historians noted it as a distinctive example of Golden Age Hollywood studio production. Once rediscovered on TV, the movie developed an ardent following that’s grown over time.

Like Casablanca, it took a generation for the true enduring value and popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life to be appreciated. It’s gone from forgotten gem to being named one of the 100 greatest movies of all time in a ranking by the American Film Institute. The film also topped the AFI’s list of the most inspirational pics in history.

Everyman protagonist George Bailey’s wistful dream to escape the confines of his small town for the big city is one that reverberates with many of us. His realization that what’s most important — family and friends — is right before him also resonates. The revelation that the lives of others would be poorer without him only comes with the help of some divine intervention — in the form of Clarence the Angel. What could have been pure hokum in the hands of lesser artists becomes a rich, multi-layered tapestry of deep psychological insights in the hands of director Frank Capra, screenwriter Jo Swerling and star Jimmy Stewart.

This was the first feature made after the Second World War by veterans Capra and Stewart, who were forever changed by their wartime experiences. The movie reflects the dark, cynical themes that began creeping into post-war Hollywood fare. George Bailey and Bedford Falls are microcosms of America from the Roaring 20s through the Depression era and on through the war. It is a journey from light to dark to light again. Hope and faith may be shaken but never fade away.

The film is a reminder that each of us impacts others and that we should be grateful for the chance at life we’ve been given. The gift of life is wonderful.

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