Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why I Love "It's a Wonderful Life"

I talk about the film a lot at work. My former co-workers at the Sentinel-Tribune used to pick on me because I love it so much. On Dec. 4, 2001 the entertainment editor asked if I would write a column about the film. Naturally, I agreed to do it, and asked if I could write ten sidebars or so. Instead, he gave me a topic: Why does a guy your age (under 30 at the time is all you need to know) like a film that is over 50 years old? What's the draw, and why the mania? Here is what I came up with, as published in the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune in December, 2001:

Why I love 'It's a Wonderful Life'
My co-workers think I'm crazy.

Around Christmas each of the five years I have worked for the Sentinel-Tribune, I have raved about the film "It's a Wonderful Life."

Even my family — many of whom like the film — won't let me play the "It's a Wonderful Life" trivia game, because as my Aunt Lora says, I "know too much."

I'll admit that I can recite every line, in character, from the beginning to end. I will also admit that it was very hard to keep from doing that when I watched it on the big screen for the first and second time at the Cla-Zel on Dec. 1 and 2 (many thanks to Kelly Wicks for bringing it to town). I plan to go again when it is shown in North Baltimore on Dec. 23.

I also admit that I have lost count of how many times I have seen the film. It's in the "several hundred" range. For about a month, I watched it three times each day for a research paper I wrote while in college about how family, friends, religion, and capitalism all combine in the film.

People often ask me why I am so infatuated with this film...especially such an old one, when I am still (barely) under 30. Since Mr. Miller won't let me fill the whole paper with the reasons, I will give you a few.

I refer to "It's a Wonderful Life" (from here on referred to as IAWL, like my license plates used to say...did I mention I was a big fan?) as a film.

For me, there are movies, and then there are films.

Anything Jim Carey appears in (up until that time, anyway) is a movie. The title of "film," for me, is reserved for something worthwhile: A movie that goes beyond just entertaining and touches on something else. "The Wizard of Oz," "Harvey," and "When Harry Met Sally" fall into this category.

Ask people what their favorite movie is and many will rattle off one that is still in theaters, or that just came out on video or DVD. Not me. A sad majority of current movies do nothing but attempt to entertain. The question any more appears to have changed from "what message can we get across" to "how many explosions, crashes, murders, or fight sequences can we squeeze into an hour and a half?"

Let me clarify right now that I am not talking about all movies; only a vast majority of them.
Beyond "Forrest Gump," and maybe "Toy Story," I can't think of one modern film truly worthy of "classic" status.

IAWL tells a long story at its own slow pace. It has what many films today lack: Content and meaning. It entertains as it teaches several lessons in a soft-handed way, but it doesn't preach.

Among these lessons are:
  • Family and friends are more important than money.
  • Everything works out, despite how bad it may seem at the worst of times.
  • Each man's life touches many other lives.
  • You don't have to travel to have adventure, or to have a wonderful life. Adventure is as close as your back yard. You just have to find it.
IAWL also does something that most current movies would never even consider: Confronting religion and its importance without belittling it with jokes, as "Keeping the Faith" did. That was just a two-hour-long "a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar" joke.

The messages in IAWL are so powerful that several judges have required suicidal criminals to watch it.
Most of all, I like George Bailey (portrayed by James Stewart). He has been described by many critics and researchers as portraying "Everyman." That everyone can see himself in George. For many of us, including myself, if we don't see ourselves in George as we are, we see something that we would like to be.

Stewart is likeable in IAWL, and in most of his films. His typical roles involve the idea of always standing up for what is right. His stuttery drawl catches your ear and your heart, and draws you in. Rarely is he referred to as James Stewart. Typically, his is called Jimmy, as if we knew him personally. There is a natural connection there that draws people.

I like him so much that I am jealous on George Bailey's behalf of his brother, Harry (Todd Karns).
Harry is a nice guy, and a World War II hero, but still, I don't like him. George sends Harry to school when he can't go. Harry gets to travel and get a good job, and he sees the world during his war service. George wants to do all of these things, but he is forced to stay home because he has the heart for, and conviction to, family and friends that Harry does not.

Harry loves his family, I'm sure. He flew home in a blizzard when George needed him most, after all. But where was he when George was supposed to leave for college and the building and loan was in danger of closing? He didn't stick around to help.

Most of all, this film has stood the test of time. Its lessons remain valid; it is more popular today than when first released; and it has gained a very dedicated following. The Internet is full of fan sites and a Web Ring dedicated to IAWL.

Seeing it on the big screen, my visit with Karoline Grimes (who played Zuzu) a couple of years ago over coffee in Cleveland, and my constantly growing collection of IAWL and Jimmy-related items have only fueled my love for the film over the last 16 or so years (more now in 2011).

It is a film that every American should watch and learn from.

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