Belfast Telegraph

It's A Wonderful Life: A lasting symbol of all that's good in Christmas

It's a film that's now as much part of a traditional Chistmas as turkey and ham. Hugh Odling-Smee on the enduring appeal of Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life - and why grains of truth within it exemplify the goodness that can be found in human nature.

When you're sitting round the oversize tree, after a once-a-year feed of turkey, the floor covered with wrapping paper and the family strewn around the living room like a scene from the last days of the Roman Empire, you'll be taking part in the "traditional Christmas".

Tradition is the all-important part of the Christmas rite, driven by a belief that these rituals we practise at the darkest time of the year are somehow handed down from our cave dwelling forbears.

Of course, all traditions are invented, from tinsel to turkey, holly to horseradish, a mish-mash of adopted customs that have as much to do with Bethlehem as the Queen has with Ethelred the Unready.

If our forebears in their animal skins had had TV, however, it's likely that they would have balanced out the nagging suggestion that Christmas has "become too materialistic" by watching a Christmas movie.

Maybe Elf with Will Ferrell showing the callous world the lessons that can be learned from a grown man in a velvet costume, or perhaps Home Alone, where a family leaves their child alone while they travel to Europe and he defends his home against two inept burglars. Most likely they would have turned to the greatest Christmas movie of them all, It's a Wonderful Life, the 1946 paean to harmony, self belief and the American way.

It's A Wonderful Life has become a cultural phenomenon. Regularly voted one of the best movies of all time, conceived by one of the 20th century's most influential directors Frank Capra and starring that complicatedly straightforward actor Jimmy Stewart, the film has become a Christmas favourite across the world. The Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast shows it each year and it sells out within hours, as do the Strand Arts Centre across the city. Fermanagh Film Club is also opening up its new Regal venue in Enniskillen for a special Christmas matinee.

The collective viewing of this piece of pitch-perfect filmmaking seems to hold a special place in our consciousness, with wet-eyed cinema-goers warmly pushing out into the cold, their hearts swelled by Capra's vision of humanity.

Like most traditions, this one happened entirely by accident. A relative flop on its release, and the cause of the closure of the film company that made it, It's A Wonderful Life sat on the shelf, loved only by a few devotees, until 1974. In that year an error by the copyright holder saw the film enter the public domain.

Television companies could then show the film effectively for free and from 1974 to 1993 that's exactly what they did. Each Christmas saw thousands of broadcasts across America and then the world. In the 1980s, 13 different companies released the film on VHS and the place of It's A Wonderful Life in our festive traditions was assured. In 1993, however, the copyright was bought back and since then it is very rarely shown on TV, and cinemas across the world have become its natural home.

For the 10% of the population who have never seen the film, a quick synopsis. George Bailey is suicidal, his family business, the Buildings and Loans company of Bedford Falls, is about to be declared bankrupt and George jailed for embezzlement. This situation has come about not through the fault of George, but rather the prideful error of his uncle and the grasping avarice of Bedford Falls's richest inhabitant, Henry F Potter. The prayers of those who love him reach Heaven where Joseph and the other angels send Clarence, a novice, to Earth to show George the error of his ways. Clarence is then told the story of George's life; saving his brother's life, working in the drugstore and showing wisdom and kindness to his employer, falling in love with Mary and sacrificing his dreams and ambitions to uphold his father's vision of a life in which "all that you can take with you, is that which you have given away".

On the bridge, staring into the dark waters of his future, Clarence first saves George and then shows him life as if he had never been born. Seeing the misery enacted if his wisdom, sacrifice and good deeds had never been performed, George begs for another chance, which is granted. I'll leave it to you to guess if the film ends on a happy note or not.

Based on an unpublished short story, the film is an affirmation of the vision of Frank Capra, the Steven Spielberg of the 1930s and 1940s. A Sicilian immigrant to the US at the turn of the century, Capra became the 1930s' most successful film director, with his signature style of hammering home a social message in each film. Works such as Meet John Doe and Mr Smith Goes To Washington saw Capra mould actors like Stewart or Gary Cooper into symbols of the everyman of American life - humble, self-sacrificing and naive, but always able to win out against power and privilege through their shining integrity. During the Second World War Capra joined up and became the greatest propaganda filmmaker of all time with his Why We Fight series being shown to all Allied troops throughout the war to remind them that the sacrifice they were making was worthwhile. It's A Wonderful Life was an extension of this message, showing how one man's sacrifice and love could make a difference to the lives of those around him.

Capra summed up why he made the films he did by saying: "Mankind needed dramatisations of the truth that man is essentially good, a living atom of divinity; that compassion for others, friend or foe, is the noblest of all virtues."

It's this message that people flock to in cinemas at Christmas, this noble idea that George Bailey represents the best of ourselves, and in his moment of greatest despair the goodness he has shown in his life is repaid to him. It is, for all its tales of angels sent from above, as close to faith as an atheist ever gets.

Perhaps Belfast audiences love the film because once every December for two hours we can put out of our minds that we seem to live in a political landscape in which self-interest and one-upmanship sometime appear to reign supreme and we can believe that the lessons of the film as Capra saw them - those of community, sacrifice and the ties that bind us - are more important than the next election or obtaining power for the next five years. We tend to focus on our differences here, but Capra would argue that we all share very basic needs, to "live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath", some work to guide our hands and a little love to guide our hearts.

Capra was, of course, a master of manipulation, the greatest propagandist in history, able to sell ideas through simple, easy to understand stories.

When more complicated films came along in the late Fifties and especially when men with long hair started appearing in movies, he effectively retired from filmmaking and ended his days making educational films for the college that had given a dirt-poor Italian immigrant an education, Caltech in Pasadena, California.

So obsolete did his vision of small town US life become that the great independent filmmaker John Cassavetes commented: "Perhaps there never was an America, just Frank Capra." Within his films, however, are sown the grains of truth, the goodness we show can make the lives of others better, sacrifice of our egos doesn't necessarily destroy our lives, but can offer its own reward, and that, as the film says, "no man is a failure who has friends".

The world we live in is almost absurdly unfair, and the way we manage our planet seems to be driving us towards something akin to Mad Max rather than the world of George Bailey. There seems to be something in It's A Wonderful Life, however, that reminds us that the spaces between us are not so large, not so far that they can't be crossed. And that is why, for many Christmases to come, a bell will ring and an angel will get its wings and the choir will sing Auld Lang Syne.

  • Hugh Odling-Smee is project manager of Film Hub NI

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