It’s a Wonderful Life
Photograph courtesy of the Glasgow Film Theatre
So Christmas rolls round again, and with it comes the emblematic Christmas film, as inevitably as the first snowfall is followed by (for those of a certain age) the closure of the A939 Cockbridge to Tomintoul. It’s a Wonderful Life has become the must-see film at Christmas, this year showing in two Glasgow cinemas – the Grosvenor and the Glasgow Film Theatre – proudly carrying its reputation as the ideal festive family film, full of optimism and the milk of human kindness, a positive paean to the nobility of human resilience…Hang on, are we talking about the same film? Isn’t It’s a Wonderful Life one of Hollywood’s darkest films – a tale of financial greed, the disappointment, despair and bitterness of a little man trapped in a small town, climaxing in attempted suicide with only last minute redemption by unearthly intervention?
But who said that things have to be shining bright at Christmas? Isn’t the original emblematic Christmas offering, Dickens’ Christmas Carol one of the darkest and scariest stories of all time – from being haunted by the ghost of Jacob Marley to being led by Death, in the guise of Christmas Future to view your own gravestone? The Dickens tale achieves its feel-good status by the same device as It’s a Wonderful Life – the last gasp redemption, the re-assertion of human goodness, the vision of a dire future averted by a positive change in behaviour, the community pulling together in mutual support.
The other surprising aspect of one of the world’s most popular films is the length of time it took to reach this status. It just didn’t hit the heights of popular or financial success on its first release in 1946 and its five Oscar nominations produced no awards. It is unknown whether its reputation was harmed by McCarthy era FBI murmurings about its ‘communistic’ depiction of bankers as villains but, from the late 1950s onwards its status grew with each TV screening and it became a ‘Christmas’ film (to the surprise of director Frank Capra). It was clear that far from being unpatriotic, it was a quintessential hymn to American values from Italian immigrant Capra, whose previous works such as Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Mr Smith Goes to Washington had unswervingly championed democracy and the little man against the system.
And this is how the film achieves its power. It appeals to the little man/woman inside us all. Like James Stewart we all have had ambitions that were dashed, we’ve all felt trapped by powerful forces beyond our ken, we’ve all compromised our ideals and lost faith in our worth at some time and wished we had a guardian angel to put things right, we’ve all wished for a magical resolution to our financial and emotional troubles; and if it doesn’t happen to us in real life we can at least celebrate vicariously with James Stewart on the silver screen, as he is shown how terrible life would have been without his presence. It reassures us that no matter how humble and unlucky we are, there is still some meaning to life, to be found in the little everyday things.
It’s a universal comforter. That other great Victorian novelist George Eliot had summed it up a century before at the end of her novel Middlemarch, when she wrote of her provincial heroine Dorothea: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Oh and did I mention by the way – it’s a wonderful film! Miss it at your peril. See it at the GFT daily from 6-24 December.
Pub Quiz question: The drunken drug store owner Mr Gower was played by Hollywood Brit H.B. Warner – what was the greatest role of his career in what 1927 US silent film.
Answer: Jesus Christ in the silent Biblical classic King of Kings