December 2004

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

It's Not Half-Bad A Movie, Either: It's A Wonderful Life

The small towns that constitute the heart of the Silicon Valley aren't really known for their holiday traditions; its strange suburban quality and highly stressed industry only ever guarantee packed shopping malls and the faintest attempts at lawn decorations. One of the few exceptions to this rule comes only one night of the year, where the Stanford Theater, a pristine movie palace nestled into the overpriced retail bonanza of Palo Alto, presents its annual Christmas Eve screening of It's a Wonderful Life. Tickets sell out quickly, people line up around the block, and hours before showtime families cluster together in the cold, waiting to see a movie that they've seen many times before.

Inside the theater, an antique pipe organ -- and an antique pipe organist -- will play Christmas carols until David Packard, son of the Packard in Hewlett-Packard and eccentric millionaire turned film preservationist, says a few words and begins the show. Booing and hissing at Old Mr. Potter is encouraged. People shout at Uncle Billy when he leaves the money behind. And at the end, there's always applause.

I don't go to see It's a Wonderful Life every year, but when I do I'm always amazed at how deeply the film strikes home with me, how sacred those screenings seem. Despite the influence of angels, the rosy cheeked glow given to small-town Christian America, the heart of the story -- the impact one man can have on the world around him -- is universal, untied to issues of faith or culture. How do the lives we lead affect those around us? It's a question infinitely relevant to a time of year when the worst of human nature stands in sharp contrast to the celebration of humanity at its best.

Which is probably why it's been ripped off so often by so many TV shows. But what was the source for the classic? Something as innocuous as a Christmas card.

Philip Van Doren Stern was a prolific historian and fiction writer of the mid-twentieth century, but in 1943 he was having a hard time finding a buyer for an original short story. Thus, he had 200 copies of "The Greatest Gift," a slight fable about a man at the end of his rope who gains a new perspective on life with the magical assistance of a mysterious stranger, printed up and sent out with his Christmas cards; that would have been the end of it, except that he had a Hollywood agent on his mailing list and she asked permission to show the story around.

"The Greatest Gift" can be read online, and it's a problematic piece -- heavy-handed and facile, the central conceit begs for a larger platform. Bank clerk George Pratt, after being granted his wish to have never been born, finds his town rundown and bankrupt, the local bank having been ripped off by the second choice for the job George originally held. The love of George's life is married to an unhappy drunk; George's parents still mourn the death of their only son, the younger brother who George had saved from drowning years before. It's a sad story, but only remarkable because of the plot device that takes us there. The potential lurks in every line, and one might consider it a godsend that the Hollywood agent whose name history has misplaced got it into Frank Capra's hands.

The film as directed by Frank Capra and written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra (with additional scenes by Jo Swerling and uncredited contributions from Dalton Trumbo, Dorothy Parker, and Clifford Odets) takes place on a much grander, darker scale. The unprevented death of George Pratt's brother leads to a lonely photo above the mantle and a mother's years-tempered grief; the unprevented death of George Bailey's brother leads to the deaths of all those who Harry Bailey was able to save during his service in World War II. It's not the most subtle of changes, but the impact it has is incredible, elevating Stern's slight fable into an jubilant celebration.

When the original story wound up in Capra's possession, its eventual success seemed a foregone conclusion... except, of course, for the fact that it flopped commercially (only the 26th highest grossing film of 1946) and failed to wow the critics -- its five Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound) seem more like afterthoughts, losing out to The Best Years of Our Lives on all but one occasion (Best Sound was won by The Jolson Story). 1946 moved onto 1947, the world continued rotating on its axis, and It's a Wonderful Life was poised to descend into obscurity.

.And then the best mistake ever was made, and in 1974 the film's copyright was not renewed, making Capra's little-seen film a part of the public domain and fair game for any and all interested parties. Over the next fifteen years, Wonderful Life was rerun into the minds of America by television stations that liked the idea of showing a Jimmy Stewart movie for free. As put by Wikipedia, "In the 1980s (the beginning of the home video era) the film finally received the acclaim it didn't receive in 1946, thus becoming a perennial holiday favorite."

I've never known a world without It's a Wonderful Life in it -- growing up, it seemed to be the thing to watch. But I don't feel like I ever really saw it until that first Christmas Eve at the Stanford Theater, sitting with the people I love, watching a movie about how we all matter, in the end.

There's a bit of romance in the film's long journey towards a place in history. The short story that couldn't find publication, adapted into the film that didn't succeed, managing to become a classic through something as mundane as a clerical error.

Sounds like a Christmas miracle to me.