(Plinky.com sends me an email everyday with a question or other instruction meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)
This morning’s Plinky asks for a favorite holiday movie, and for me I don’t even have to think twice about it. I love the fact that Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life, is a beloved classic, because it is such a subversive Christmas movie.
Please keep in mind, I’m no Scrooge. For, despite my Jewish upbringing and my leanings toward Buddhism, I’m a willing and enthusiastic participant in Christmas. We just decorated the tree last night, I’ve had my first egg nog of the season, I’m brushing up on carols on the guitar for upcoming sing-a-longs, and I look forward to watching a wide variety of traditional Christmas movies.
When I say that It’s A Wonderful Life is subversive, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not the only Christmas movie that offers messages that attempt to counteract the rampant materialism and consumerism that tend to overshadow the holiday. And yet, It’s A Wonderful Life is in a league of it’s own in that regard. Truly, it is an epic story wherein Christmas is nearly an incidental background, and in fact I don’t think there’s any mention of Christmas until roughly two-thirds of the way into the film.
According to Frank Capra himself (via Wikipedia):
The film’s elevation to the status of a much-beloved classic came decades after its initial release, when it became a television staple in the 1970s and 1980s Christmas seasons. This came as a welcome surprise to Frank Capra and others involved with it. “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
I chose the photo included here for a very specific reason. Google Images offers many shots from the film taken from various scenes, but this one here, the freeze frame when Jimmy Stewart, as college graduate George Bailey, exclaims, “I need a big one!”, in order to describe how big a suitcase he needs for the trip around the world he would eventually have to give up, is so representative of how the primary story in the film is George’s story, a story of deferred dreams, which isn’t particularly relevant to Christmas in any way that I can think of.
Oh, but it IS particularly relevant to me. The first time I fell in love with the movie, like George here, I was newly graduated from college, was working some forgetful summer job, still living with my parents, wanting to desperately strike out on my own, but unable to do it. (Yes, I watched the movie, which we owned on VHS, in the summer, another symbol of just how little I associated the film with Christmas.)
Of course, my circumstances were very different than George’s. His obstacles were all external and mine internal. Unlike young master Bailey…
Mary, I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world! Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colesseum.
Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know, and then I’m going to build things. I’m gonna build air fields. I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.
… I had no idea what I wanted to do. Oh, I had dreams, but as I’ve written about before, I had no one in my life, as I was accumulating my dreams, who encouraged me to seize the day and let nothing (e.g. fear, doubt, finances, etc.) get in my way.
But wait, did someone mention Christmas?
See what I mean?
Add in the stock market crash, World War II, and the evil of big business and Christmas seems like a quaint afterthought.
If you want Santa and his elves or Rudolph and the Grinch, there are plenty of other movies to choose from. But, there’s only one It’s A Wonderful Life.