Blog Directory CineVerse: An American institution ages gracefully

An American institution ages gracefully

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It's a Wonderful Life continues to delight new generations

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: this is part 4 of a 4-part weekly series that began on Dec. 9.)

Before his passing in 1991, if you had the opportunity to ask "It's a Wonderful Life" director Frank Capra to sum up the secret to his film's success, he might have given you this answer:

"It's a movie about a small town guy who thinks he is a failure and wishes he had never been born," Capra once said. "He's supposed to learn that he was not a failure, that he fitted into the scheme of life...I think that a lot of people everywhere will be able to associate themselves with the character and will perhaps feel a lot better for having known him. People are seeking spiritual guidance and moral reassurance..and if the movies can't supply this, they will be serving no worthwhile purpose."

Ingredients for a winning recipe

Then again, maybe the magic behind the movie is its wistfulness, its power to invoke hometown nostalgia, its sense of close-knit community and simple human values--all of which are becoming ignored concepts today in our ultra-urbanized societies (ask yourself: could a Bedford Falls' ever exist again on earth?).

Or possibly it's the element of quality in the film's production. It is, after all, a superbly crafted picture in its method of acting, direction and technical innovation. Perhaps it is Stewart himself who commands the picture, with his unique behavioral acting style. His charming mannerisms, tripping speech patterns, articulated facial expressions and innocent, lanky-frame create an unforgettable image of an irreplaceable George Bailey. The romantic tension he builds while "falling in love" with Donna Reed's character is spellbinding, and I think it remains an eternal source of wonder for new and old audiences alike.

As for the kindling that helped it combust anew into a fiery film fan movement in the 1970s, there is also, one could argue, a correlation between some of "It's a Wonderful Life's" (IAWL) thematic values to popular movies in the late '70s. IAWL in itself is a basic parable, pitting a force for good (George) against a force for evil (Potter)--the classic confrontation. George loses in the end, yet wins a personal victory.

This was a dominant ideology of movies at this time: "Rocky" (1976), "Coming Home" (1978), and "Breaking Away" (1979) reflect personal triumphs in the midst of failures, while blockbusters like "Star Wars" (1977), and "Superman" (1978) intimated themes of good versus evil. These programmed values in '70s films could have very well made IAWL more digestible to the public, helping advance its success.

An annual tradition
And what about today? What sustains the film's longevity in fact, I believe, is the established ritualistic tradition it has become. You must either be a cave dweller or movie hater to have not heard of the film by now. For the rest of us who tune in or press play faithfully every Yuletide season, it has become sheer necessity: we need to feel those goosebumps all over again when Capra brings the house down with his pass-the-kleenex climax. Stewart and Capra, who in 1946 knew it was the best picture they'd done or probably ever would do, couldn't be happier. "It's part of the annual ritual now," said Stewart, a few years back. "That means a great deal to me, and I know it means an awful lot to Capra, because he says it's his favorite, too."

Yet, the film's amazing rejuvenation over the past 30-plus years has been both a blessing and a curse. In 1986, IAWL fell victim to the colorization process, via Hal Roach Studios, a move that has drawn the ire of critics, purists and filmlovers everywhere. As a further exploitation of the movie, composers have been trying to turn IALW into a musical for decades. Finally, old-fashioned greed has put the clamps on Capra’s classic, perhaps for good. Republic Pictures was able to reassert exclusive rights to IAWL in 1994, and made a long-term deal with NBC, which now has exclusive broadcast reigns on the film. Paramount acquired the home video rights a few years ago, and currently offers DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the movie, each featuring the original black-and-white version as well as a colorized version of the film.

Thanks to its continued popularity on television and home video, "It's a Wonderful Life" fans will always be free as an angel to relish their favorite movie whenever want. Thanks for the wings, George (and a wonderful marriage too)!

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