Seventy-five years after the film was released — with America more bitterly divided than ever — is it still a wonderful life?
The holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is deceptively lovable, packing all sorts of hard punches in giftwrapped gloves. While it’s a sweet tribute to the value of each individual life, it’s also a manual for uniting against runaway capitalism. It may be considered a sentimental, even sappy tearjerker, but preceding that warm, communal closing scene is an epic of class struggle and power run amok.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” screens Dec. 19-21 at the Liberty Theatre in Camas, and then Dec. 22-24 at the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver. It’s among the interesting offerings at Clark County’s independent cinemas this month.
The world that George Bailey (James Stewart) contends with seems awfully fraught, even when he’s just a lad. That’s when he prevents the local pharmacist, who’s grieving over the loss of a child, from accidentally poisoning a customer. What does George earn for his good deed? Blows to the head that draw blood. It’s an intense and disturbing scene that sets the tone for what’s to come. Life may be wonderful, but there are still dues to pay and tragedies to endure.
George is a difficult hero. His heart may be gold, but he’s so desperate to escape his hometown that he treats the local girl he’s obviously meant for (Donna Reed) with unforgivable rudeness. (Why does she forgive him?) Bedford Falls is a stratified society, where the ethnically diverse poor struggle to afford homes while the rich do their best to keep things that way. When scheming banker Mr. Potter steals a wad of cash from the struggling Baileys — with his own hands, and with relish — George is driven to the brink of suicide.
Sentimental sap? This is gritty, near-tragic stuff — and it all comes before the nightmarish final stretch, which would have made a perfect “Twilight Zone” episode. Thank goodness for the perfectly happy, perfectly logical ending, as the people pull together and prevail. Whew!
J. Edgar Hoover sure felt the political implications. On May 26, 1947, Hoover’s FBI issued a memo stating, “(T)he film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This … is a common trick used by Communists. … (T)his picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”
Released in time for Christmas 1946, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a box-office disappointment that became a holiday classic only after it went copyright-free in the 1970s and started screening annually on TV.
Nobody was more surprised than director Frank Capra, who told The Wall Street Journal in 1984: “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. 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.”
Classics in Camas
If “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a grown-up reality check on American Christmas, “A Christmas Story” (1983) serves as a child’s take on that idealized holiday.
Based on tall tales that raconteur Jean Shepard used to spin on the radio, “A Christmas Story” is a rich feast of all the mischief, mayhem and madness that conquers one typical American family in the run-up to the big day. No need to test out what really happens when you lick the frozen school flagpole; it’s in here. Two screenings are set, for today and Saturday at the Liberty.
After that — and after a Clint Eastwood festival, tonight through Dec. 7, featuring “Gran Torino,” “Unforgiven” and an Eastwood documentary — the Liberty decks its halls with Christmas classics aplenty. Chevy Chase shorts out the whole neighborhood with his rooftop lights display in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (Dec. 17 and 20); Will Ferrell towers over Santa’s other sprites in “Elf” (Dec. 17 and 18); lovable little monsters step into holiday sunlight in “Gremlins” (Dec. 17 and 20); and Spokane denizen Bing Crosby croons the unforgettable title song in “White Christmas,” a comedy remembered for great music, not its showbiz story (Dec. 18, 20, 21 at the Liberty; Dec. 17-20 at the Kiggins).
Somewhere between childhood ideals and adult reality comes the sweet complication of first love. Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s screwball tribute to that awkward glory, set in early 1970s Los Angeles, is his new “Licorice Pizza,” which opens Christmas Day at the Kiggins.
The endlessly inventive, uplifting, offbeat-yet-heartfelt “Licorice Pizza” stars Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, as an unstoppably enterprising 15-year-old high-schooler in pursuit of the older, worldlier girl of his dreams.
“Definitely my favorite film of the year,” said Kiggins programming director Richard Beer. “No one has his finger on the pulse of a time and place quite like Paul Thomas Anderson. I felt transported back to my childhood.”
A very Lumpy Christmas
OK, I admit that I disembarked the Millennium Falcon when my children aged out of the endlessly metastasizing Star Wars franchise. (I’ve always been more “Trek” than “Wars.”) But even for me, there’s no forgetting the really magical characters and chemistry that helped the first few Star Wars films seize control of pop culture. We all know Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Princess Leia and even Chewbacca the Wookie, right?
But what about wee Lumpy? He’s Chewbacca’s furry kid, believe it or not, who helps save the day in a 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special.” The made-for-TV program was rushed out to ride the intergalactic coattails of 1977’s original, immensely successful “Star Wars” film. Yet somehow the result, featuring a head-scratching assortment of guest stars (Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman and the renamed Jefferson Airship rock band) was just as universally reviled as “Star Wars” was celebrated.
Never re-released in any form after its 1978 TV screening, the film found its way onto indie screens as a cult classic considered so bad, it’s pretty great. The most “Star Wars” creator George Lucas could say of the holiday special was: “It was a thing that they did.”
Beloved by “Star Wars” and sci-fi superfans with Force-reinforced stomachs, the “Star Wars Holiday Special” screens for free Dec. 18 at Kiggins.