Overwhelming evidence leads you to conclude that you’re a complete failure. Maybe everything would be better if you’d never even existed.
But then a miracle occurs, and you learn a profound lesson: Because of you, everything is better. You really do have a wonderful life.
That’s not just the biography of humble hero George Bailey and his journey from striving to despair to faith, it’s also the history of this beloved holiday classic. To say that “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not especially beloved when it was released in 1946 is putting it mildly. Critics mostly liked the film while still knocking its sugary sentimentality — but the box office itself leveled the ultimate judgment. Faced by stiff competition like “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” the elaborate and expensive-to-make “It’s a Wonderful Life” lost money in general theatrical release.
Heartwarming holiday tale? Any film that features Jimmy Stewart screaming at his adorable kids and planning suicide has got to qualify as dark, twisted and desperate. The FBI, noting the film’s pointed class consciousness — virtuous poor versus evil banker — even warned that it could be considered Communist propaganda.
But what seemed like tragedy at the cinema turned into triumph on television. The copyright to the film lapsed in 1974, so for the next two decades, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a public-domain freebie that TV stations loved to show at Christmastime. That’s how it became the classic we know and love today. (The copyright was restored in the early 1990s.)
If You Go
• What: “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” adapted by Joe Landry.
• When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 and 12; 2 p.m. Dec. 12 and 13.
• Where: Love Street Playhouse, 126 Love Ave., Woodland.
• Tickets: $15-$18 in advance.
• Information: www.lovestreetplayhouse.com, 360-907-9996.
• What: “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play,” adapted by Tony Palermo.
• When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 and 12; 2 p.m. Dec. 13.
• Where: Vancouver First United Methodist Church, 401 E. 33rd St.
• Cost: Free; donations accepted.• Information: www.vanfumc.org
• What: “A Radio Christmas Carol,” presented by Willamette Radio Workshop.
• When: 7 p.m. Dec. 16. 6 p.m. pre-show by the Hough Elementary Glee Choir.
• Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.
• Cost: A donation to the Clark County Food Bank.• Information: http://events.vancouver.wsu.edu/re-imagined-radio-radio-christmas-carol
“The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it,” director Frank Capra told The Wall Street Journal in 1984. “I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president.”
Which brings us to the latest reboots of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: live radio plays. Two different adaptations, at the Love Street Playhouse in Woodland and the First United Methodist Church on the west side of Vancouver, will present the story in the style of the dramatic radio broadcasts of the so-called Golden Age of Radio, the 1920s through the 1950s (before the tube took over the world).
At Love Street, you’ll see five actors performing the voices of dozens of different characters and adding the sound effects just as if you were behind the scenes at a broadcast studio of yesteryear. Plus, according to director Melissa Leuthold, the theater will be “awash with the Christmas spirit including coffee, hot apple cider and desserts provided by local businesses.”
At First United Methodist, you’ll see a combined cast of 15, with actors drawn from the church and the North End Players of Portland. This production was directed by Tim Luke.
And here’s another seasonal radio-drama offering: “A Radio Christmas Carol,” presented by the Willamette Radio Workshop of Portland, is headed for the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver for a single performance on Dec. 16. Same idea here: a familiar favorite dramatized in voices and sound, with an audience privy to the usually hidden ways that studio magic enters the ears to work the imagination.
Incidentally, critics have noted how much “A Christmas Carol,” published by Charles Dickens in 1843, must have influenced “It’s a Wonderful Life”; it’s an earlier story of a miserable man who requires divine intervention at Christmastime to realize just how good he’s got it.
To intervene in some misery and help your neighbors have a joyous holiday season, the cost of admission is a food donation to Clark County Food Bank.