The “Christmas Classic” Has Meaning All Year Long
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In November of 1939, the American author, editor and Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern sat down to write an original short story based on a vivid dream that he couldn’t forget. Stern completed the 4,100-word tale in 1943, but, unable to attract a publisher, he refashioned his story into a 21-page Christmas present that he shared with 200 of his close friends and family at the end of the year. Titled “The Greatest Gift,” the booklet somehow found its way to Hollywood, where RKO Pictures studio chief Charles Koerner recommended it to director Frank Capra, who immediately understood the heart of the slim plot. Capra, who had enjoyed spectacular success in the ’30s, creating American cinematic classics such as “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” had just emerged from military service in World War II where he had made seven U.S. War Department documentaries and was looking for a new project to announce his return to commercial filmmaking. Capra immediately began cobbling together a working script with the help of a cabal of other screenwriters who drifted in and out of the production over the next year.
The story, which he revised throughout the filming and renamed “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was deceptively simple. George Bailey, a small town dreamer with outsized ambitions, is trapped within the confines of his hometown. Every attempt he makes to break out of his provincial life is thwarted and he eventually settles down to a familiar yet dull routine as a husband, father and small town banker. And yet, under the patina of his life bubbles the flickering flame of his boyhood dreams: Littering his living room are cardboard and paper models of bridges and skyscrapers crafted by the inner architect that he longed to become. Things come to a head, however, when George’s absent-minded uncle misplaces an $8,000 bank deposit ($100,000 today) that was meant for the coffers of the Bailey Building and Loan on the very day that the local bank examiner arrives. Facing financial ruin and prison, George totters on the brink of suicide when he mutters to himself that he wishes he had never been born. At this point, the plot switches into sentimental overdrive with the appearance of a scruffy guardian-angel-in-training who spends the rest of the movie attempting to earn his wings by showing George what life would be like if he never existed.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” premiered in New York City on Dec. 20, 1946, to mixed reviews. Time magazine raved about its inventiveness, while The New York Times panned its clichéd characters. Although the film won five Oscar nominations, it was seen as a commercial flop. American audiences coming out of the horror of the Second World War found Capra’s high-minded values and bias against big cities to be naive and unrealistic. The movie ended up bankrupting Capra’s small production company and casting a heavy shadow over the director’s ability to deliver at the box office. It would take another 25 years for the American public to fall in love with Capra’s valentine to small-town America.
And then something unforeseen began to happen. Desperate for content to fill up the empty hours of late night television broadcasting in the 1970s, major networks began showing the film repeatedly to a new audience that had been traumatized by the cynicism of the Vietnam War and the emerging scandal of Nixon’s Watergate. The sentimentality, idealism and broad strokes of Capra’s cinematic style were leavened by the director’s ability to tell a simple, clear story filled with genuine human warmth, humor and emotion. Just as crucial was the overall quality of the cast that featured veteran performers in every role, from the stars to the supporting actors to the bit players. Whether it was Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey; Donna Reed as his wife, Mary; Lionel Barrymore as the evil banker or Henry Travers as George’s guardian angel, each actor felt like an irreplaceable note in a melody that is at once familiar, yet genuine.
Stewart, in arguably the greatest role of his career, had just returned from World War II, where he had flown 20 combat missions over Europe and had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Croix de Guerre. At the time, Stewart was seriously considering quitting acting because of what he had witnessed during the war and had to be convinced to take the role by Barrymore. Better known for his work in romantic comedies, fluffy melodramas and even light-hearted musicals, Stewart revealed a power and depth to his acting that was previously unappreciated.
As the movie builds to its crescendo, George Bailey has retreated to a dingy roadside saloon, where he drinks away the disgrace, shame and ridicule that will arrive in the morning light when the authorities discover the $8,000 hole in his company’s account books. Stewart is mourning not only the coming day of judgment, but all the lost dreams of his youth, as well. In the shadows and tawdry glow of that bar, Stewart, the actor, opens a window into his soul that is at once terrifying to look at, but impossible to forget. It is as if Stewart is sharing with us through his performance not only what is in the script, but everything he has seen and experienced in his recent past. Suddenly, the character of George Bailey comes alive and you feel the yearning, frustration and terror of a life unraveling. Invariably, it is Stewart’s performance that helps lift this movie into a higher realm that reaches far beyond just another predictable holiday treat.
Today the film is considered a Christmas perennial that is seen by many as the quintessential harbinger of the holiday season. In 2007, it was named one of the 100 greatest American movies of all time by the American Film Institute. Ironically, Capra never considered “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be a Christmas movie. He felt that its message was far too important to be shoved into a single category and forgotten the rest of the year. Over the course of Capra’s film, George Bailey comes to realize a powerful truth that transforms him to his core. Shown by his guardian angel how his single life has impacted so many others, he begins to understand that each of us is like a single strand of a universal web that will collapse if even one strand is removed. Something as simple as saying “hello” to a friend on the street, or sharing a random act of kindness can change the world forever. Or, as Clarence Odbody, George’s guardian angel, concludes, “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Perhaps the same thing can be said about this wonderful movie.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.