Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen

As you know, I am a HUGE fan of the film "It's a Wonderful Life." My honest estimate is that I have seen it more than 700 times. In college, I wrote my final huge paper about the film titled "The Affirmation of Civic-Minded Capitalism in Frank Capra's First Post-World War II Film, It's a Wonderful Life." I have since expanded that into an as-yet unpublished book I have provisionally titled "It's a Wonderful Life: The Scene-ic Tour." 

In order to do all of that writing, I had to watch the film over and over and over again. For a three-month period 1996/1997, I watched it 3 times a day in order to find symbolism, connections and nuance. It was an amazing experience. To this day, I still find new things every time I watch it.

I saw "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen for the first time in December, 2001. I have seen it several times on the big screen since then. These are recaps of those viewings. These were written as they happened, and are, for the most part, unchanged for the purpose of this blog.

So here they are:

On Dec. 1 and 2, 2001, the Cla-Zel theatre in Bowling Green, Ohio, showed "It's a Wonderful Life" for free. The film was shown at noon and 3 p.m. both days.

I was able to attend the very first and the very last showing. I took a crew with my the first time, with my aunts Lora and Dona, cousins Brooke and Emma, and friend, Faith (a friend, whose store I hope to tell in this blog), to see it. The second time I went, my mother (who introduced me to the film) and my father went with me.

The copy they had the first day was old and was crimped in the beginning credits, so the started it where the people begin to pray for George. This copy also cut off the bottom portion of the image, so Mary's chin was cut off in the dance/pool scene, as were the poison pills George looks at when his father sent him away.

The second time I went, they apparently got a different copy, because they showed the opening bell and credits with no trouble. It also was lined up properly, and I could see everything on the lower portion of the screen that I had never seen before. The problem with this copy was that the sound cut out occasionally, and the picture would go blurry sometimes.

Not that I'm complaining. All in all, it was an amazing experience. I have been hoping to see it on the big screen for years, and I finally got to do it.

It is a very large movie theatre/old-fashioned opera house, so it was only about a quarter full the first showing and about a third full for the final showing. I don't know attendance rates for the middle two showings.

Knowing the film as well as I do, it was very hard to keep myself from calling out the lines with the characters. I caught myself doing most of the hand movements throughout, though.

What I found most entertaining was the crowd reaction. Both times I went, people laughed at parts I forgot were funny...especially during the hydrangea scene, and George visiting Mary just before Sam calls. I'm pretty sure some of those who attended the second time had never seen the film before because they laughed very hard at the "He's making violent love to me, mother," line. They also gasped when Gower slaps Georges ears, when George yells at Billy for losing the money, and again, when he yells at the children and destroys his home office. Those scenes took them by surprise.

I was able to see things I had never noticed before in watching "It's a Wonderful Life" in my own living room, including the fact that "City Hall" really is written on City Hall, and the Civil War memorial right in front of City Hall and just behind the Welcome to Bedford Falls sign. It truly is amazing once you see something on the big screen to try to figure out how in the world you missed such an obvious thing.

Many scenes had surprising effects on me, as well, including all of the scenes I mentioned when people gasped. I found myself crying (200 times and I still what?) four times each viewing: Once at George and Peter talking at the table before the dance, once when George prays at Martinis, once when George prays to live again, and the very end, at the very moment Harry toasts George at the richest man in town.

A lot of people have raved about the telephone love scene between George and Mary, and I never really got it. The walk home from the dance, and the final scene always have been my favorite. The big screen changed my opinion of the phone scene. While still not my favorite, it carries more impact on the big screen than on television. Wow! I never saw George's nose touch Mary's forehead at the hairline before. I never saw all of the small nuances and the attraction and hidden love in that scene before. It packed a huge punch.

Another thing I noticed is the number of references the film makes to alcoholic drinks. I'm don't preach about "the evils of alcohol," though. I'm just making an observation. I will have to make a list of those references some day.

Bottom line: This film has always been amazing, but on the big screen it is larger than life, and better than ever. If you have a chance to see it in a theatre, I strongly encourage you to go...multiple times.

I had the opportunity to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen for the third time this year during the village of North Baltimore, Ohio's closing ceremony for its 125th celebration on Dec. 23.
The area's first measurable snowfall set the perfect scene for the evening, starting to fall just minutes before the film started. The snow was enough to make the trip home after the film very scary. We were traveling 15 MPH on I-75, where the speed limit is 65.

I have been blamed for bringing the film to town, with some in North Baltimore saying I "rigged it." Here's what happened: As part of my job, I cover council, board of education, and other meetings within the village.

During a downtown improvement committee meeting, the village historian Bonnie Knaggs told me that as part of the closing celebration, the 125 Heritage Days Committee would show one of three movies. Area residents could call in to vote for their choice of "White Christmas," "Miracle on 34th Street," or "It's a Wonderful Life."

I voted on the spot for IAWL, and on my trip home from the meeting, I called my mother, and two aunts to ask them to vote for their families. My Aunt Lora called and the guy who answered asked her "Did you call before?" She said no, and the guy told her "We've got some guy trying to rig this thing and I just had to check," or something like that. I suppose that guy was me.

A month later, during another downtown improvement meeting, the Superintendent of Schools announced that IAWL was the overwhelming choice, and described the voting as a "Chicago election." He looked at me and said "That's the movie you wanted, isn't it?"

So back to movie night.

They could not get a regular copy of the film, so they had to rent special equipment to show the 16 mm version. I don't know much about film, but this version was a little bit narrower than the screen, and it was split into four or five reels. There was about a minute lag between reels.

I was joined by my (then) wife, my parents, my Aunt Lora, my friend, Kyle, and my (then) wife's two cousins, Marissa and Mallory, who were both under 15 and love the film. We made a special hour trip on Sunday to pick them up so they could join us.

The film started and after the second reel, my (then) wife asked Marissa and Mallory how they were doing. They said they were sad that I wasn't sitting between them because they wanted to hear me say all the lines. I changed seats so I could sit between them, but I only said three or four lines, because I didn't want other people to be mad at me.

The small Posh Virginia Theatre was only about 1/4 full, and I thought the crowd was reasonably rude. People were opening candy wrappers as loudly as they could, and there was a kid bawling in the front, and his dad refused to take him out for about 20 minutes. He finally left and I clapped for them when they did. Not quite the Christmas spirit, but hey, if you can't control your kid, get the heck out. I'm there to watch a movie, not to listen to the kid bawl.

There were also some junior high or high school kids constantly laughing in the back. It's hard to stay in the movie and focus on it when kids are giggling uncontrollably as George is standing on the bridge contemplating suicide.

Another guy was fidgeting and kept moving his leg, making his seat creak.

Maybe I'm just hypersensitive and think IAWL should be treated like church. I think that's probably it.

Despite all, the experience was spectacular. I noticed many, many new things I had never seen in the film before, including:

  • When the kids are walking George back to work after his dip in the pond, one kid is wearing a white shirt with black or red lettering that I believe says "BBBL," which stands for Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.
  • During the run on the bank, one shot inside the Building and Loan shows Cousin Tilly's name plate on her desk, reading "Matilda Bailey." I had never seen it before. Since she is COUSIN Tilly, I assume she is Billy's daughter, but she calls him "Uncle Billy" during the phone call with Harry.
  • When George visits Mr. Gower to thank him for the suitcase, they shake hands. I have always been so intent on George making his wish at the cigar lighter that I never noticed Gower slaps his hand and says "enjoy it."
  • Uncle Billy addresses George with the phrase "Avast there Cap'n Cook" twice: Once when he goes to visit Peter to ask him about the poison, and once when George is walking down the street with his suitcase.

My dad came up with this observation: After the party for Harry and Ruth, George visits Mary. She follows the exact same format of conversation as the one they had as kids at Gower's Drug Store about coconuts, using most of George's phrases, including "Have you made up your mind?"

I also came up with a question about the film: Do George and Mary talk about George's experience later on? When they are reunited, George tells Mary "you have no idea what happened," and Mary tells him "YOU have no idea." But do they share their stories? What does Mary think of George's story? At the very end, when George reads the inscription, he brushes off Mary's question of "who's that?" by simply saying "That's a present from a very dear friend of mine." Does he do that to end the conversation, or does he use the explanation to postpone a lengthy conversation about it until after the party?

On Nov. 20, 2004, I saw "It's a Wonderful Life" for the fourth time. The only two issues I had with this viewing were that: 

1) there were way too many children running down the aisles and making too much noise too often during the film (and I'm a father. A friend who went to the movie with me - a child care provider - also almost torqued off on these kids). 

2) I'm in the middle of a divorce (I was at the time this originally was written), so my head is not in it. I need a major attitude adjustment.

The neatest thing about this viewing is that even after 700 viewings, I made the following observations and had the following questions: 

1) What is Mrs. Hatch's name? 

2) Potter has horses, while there are poorer residents of Bedford Falls who have cars.

3) George kicks a lot of doors and fences open and closed.

4) Potter's voice-over of his job offer to George is different than the real offer.

5) Nicknames were big among George friends when they were boys.

In November of 2005, my girlfriend at the time took me as a surprise to see IAWL on the big screen in Toledo. Still fun.

I went to watch this alone on Nov. 25, 2006. I went to the Westfield Shopping Center to see it again. 

They played the 60th anniversary restored edition. I found myself watching the background details and I found a lot of things I hadn't seen before.

The audience was great, and I sat next to a woman who had never seen it before. Listening to her reactions was fun. When George had his melt-down and destroyed his home office, there is a moment of silence when he recomposed himself. During that moment, not a single person in the theatre spoke. It goes to prove that this film, at 60 (now 65 years old) years old, still has the ability to enchant the audience.

The is another opportunity to see It's a Wonderful Life at the Maumee Indoor Theatre tomorrow (Dec. 18, 2011). It is playing at 2:00, 4:30, and 7:00. Sadly, with my family celebrating a Christmas brunch tomorrow, I can't go to the early one, and my oldest son's return to his mother at 6, and the bed time of the youngest will likely prevent me from seeing either of the other two showings. It is sad that I will miss it on the big screen this year, but with more than 700 viewings under my belt, I can just imagine it instead.

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