Every one has seen it.
At least, it seems so at this time of year.
You can’t avoid seeing that 1946 classic appearing on television.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Everyone at the office loves it, of course, even those who haven’t seen it. Everyone has their favorite scene, the bits they like to quote. Unexpectedly, some become quite poetic, profound even, when discussing its ending. They—we—can all identify with that bit. So bitter sweet—not a dry eye in the house. Yes, a classic, we are all agreed on that. By now, you know I’m talking about Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Of course, you knew that, it’s everyone’s favorite Christmas movie—right? Wrong. Not mine. I prefer his other, earlier, Christmas movie.
At this point, most people stare blankly back—is this guy for real? You are putting us on? Okay—what other film?
At this point, I had better explain.
Now, don’t get me wrong, It’s a Wonderful Life is my second favorite Christmas film, and by a mile, but there is another that pips it at the post, if only just. But don’t worry, even though its ending is bleaker, it is still equally, if more strangely, redemptive for all that.
Wait a minute, though. We are getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s start at the beginning. Mr. Frank Russell Capra was born in 1897. An Italian American director, he created a genre all his own, and in so doing won Oscars and audiences on the way. In the 1930s and 40s, Box Offices and critics couldn’t get enough of his films. An original when Cinema was all pretty original. Humorous and insightful, witty and humane, his movies celebrate ‘the little guy’ and the joy of his everyday life—and in case you missed it, that’s most of us. Yes, and he did it all with such style, such charm, such vitality! Never preachy or dull, this was a man you would always have been happy to spend a few hours with, and that’s just what the cinema going public back then did, year in, year out.
Even when war came, it did not dull the man, or his vision. In a way, it simply sharpened his focus. By 1941, he was making propaganda movies for the American Military. These were rated pretty good as well, and again he won an Oscar. The clouds may have been gathering over Europe and the Pacific; nevertheless, for Frank Capra, it seemed that everyone of them had a silver lining, which makes this ‘one’—you know that ‘other one’ we are talking about—made in the year of Pearl Harbor, all the more intriguing.
The story? I hate giving away plots, so you will have to look elsewhere for that—50 seconds, or less, online will give you all you need to know. For once, can’t you just trust me? Okay, look, it’s a story of a nobody, who becomes a somebody, only to discover that he really was a nobody after all and is seen as such by those around him, and all this as the midnight chimes of Christmas night ring out, leaving him with no hope whatsoever—or so it seems. For at that point the Ordinary—or is it the Extraordinary? —kicks in, and we end up with a finish that will leave you sobbing for all the broken dreams that ever sat and looked out over a bleak winter sky—and that includes yours and mine.
Fear not, even in that darkest of cinematic nights the Dawn comes; just as it has done, and still does, and will again, from now until that unexpected Trumpet blasts, at last bringing It definitively.
The cast? Well if I say it has some of America’s greatest: a leading man for everyman, as good looking as he was a good actor, with a co-star, as sassy as she was intelligent, as funny as she was characterful. I mean, come on, what do you want, for crying out loud! And all mixed in equal by an expert hand using a well-written recipe. This particular chef knew, as only he could, precisely how to whip that concoction into shape. Soon, you will realize that this is no turkey, but instead a very special Christmas pudding, as nourishing as it is sweet to taste.
Then there are those monochrome images, with their dark lantern glamour, delivering just the right tone of depth and texture needed so that throughout, in the corner of our eyes, the shadows play with the light, and enough to remind us of something else, something fundamental. That night, far off in time, if mysteriously still close, with its own Light that once led shepherds, and guides us yet, back to dimly lit churches as the clocks once more strike Midnight. Only this time the bells toll not for the character at the end of this movie, but, instead, for all of us.
You see, in this movie, what you are actually witnessing is prayer, caught on celluloid. Really? Yes, really. You may have heard this story before, but all the same, allow me to repeat it, if for no other reason than I like the telling.
One day, Frank Capra was walking down the street minding his own business when a random stranger stopped him and said the following: “The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired. God gave you those talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose. And when you don’t use the gifts God blessed you with, you are an offense to God—and to humanity.” Now if someone stopped you and said that, well, to say the least, you might be a little shaken, disturbed even. Capra was; enough to go on and make some of the most joy-filled classics that cinema has ever witnessed. You see the film world of Capra is about the ordinary, but he glimpsed the Extraordinary in it—and knew in his heart exactly where that came from and, more importantly, that it was down to him to play his part in its revelation.
And what about you, and me? What’s our part this Christmas, and the rest of the year, come to think of it?
So, okay—go ahead, watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I understand, really, I do. Nevertheless, you may wish to spend a moment thinking over what we’ve been talking about. You see, you could not only be missing out on another great seasonal cinematic treat—at the very least—but, also, on your second favorite Christmas film of all time, or, you never know, perhaps discovering your first.
Ladies & Gentlemen: for your delectation, we present Mr. Gary Cooper and Miss Barbara Stanwyck in Mr. Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.
I do hope you enjoy the show…