Blog Directory CineVerse: A phoenix rises from the ashes

A phoenix rises from the ashes

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tracing the amazing resurgence of "It's a Wonderful Life" over the last 30 years

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 3 of a 4-part weekly series; part 4 will post next Wednesday.)

After decades of, for the most part, audience indifference and lack of recognition, "It's a Wonderful Life" (IAWL) came back into the public consciousness with a vengeance. Capra became slowly aware of this phenomenon throughout the fifties and sixties, when more and more grateful letters from fans began pouring in.

Soon thousands of people were writing him on a variety of subjects--some inquiring about inconsistencies in the film (like Potter not being punished at the end for keeping the $8,000), some interpreting what the film meant to them, and even more expressing extreme heartfelt appreciation for so inspirational and transcendent a movie. He tried to respond personally to all their letters at first, but eventually found it impossible due to the overwhelming amount of messages he would receive, whereby Capra decided to simply store away his IAWL letters in a huge file.

A new life on the small screen

However, by 1974 the mild renewed success of IAWL had bottomed out, and it appeared that the movie was headed for occasional late-late show runs among other "B" fare forgotten pictures, thanks to its new public domain status. But becoming a non-property--although it spelled the end of TV royalties for Capra (almost) forever--did not detract in any way from its identity. Instead, it freed IAWL from the confines of economic exploitation by its previous owners and make possible another more positive kind of economic utilization--free use by television stations--which led to mass public exposure.

Now IAWL was earning its deserved audience via free (and soon cable) TV. The nationwide marketing of the film by commercial stations had its greedy financial motivations, of course, but the picture was quickly garnering cultural identification with its newfound audience, who were beginning to grow accustomed to it as an annual holiday offering. Indeed, IAWL was making everybody happy: the TV stations were making money off its ratings, Frank Capra--though robbed of any profit capacity--was starting to feel proud all over again, and the public had found itself a favorite--one good enough to be ranked among other perennial American classics like "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Sound of Music."

The resurgence was underway, and what had begun as a cult-following in the mid-seventies escalated into a widespread cultural phenomenon by 1980. Millions of Americans were cherishing IAWL and countless others were discovering it for the first time. It had become by far the best-loved Christmas movie, topping all other major holiday standards like "White Christmas", "Miracle on 34th Street," and any of the five adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" in ratings and popularity polls (although the former two, along with IAWL, are the three Christmas films most often aired on TV, according to a survey of national TV logs taken in the '80s).

The rejuvenation of Capra's movie inspired an ABC TV remake in 1977 called "It Happened One Christmas", starring Orson Welles and Marlo Thomas, surprisingly, in the George Bailey role. This color recreation with a feminist tone was a weak attempt, trying to evoke the emotional impact of the original amidst a contemporary setting, but never living up to the spirit of its predecessor. Nevertheless, the TV clone generated further interest in the original, and seemed to bestow a subtle reverence and respect onto IAWL--paying it a sort of broadcast "homage" in an updated form.

Reasons for the rejuvenation
These were the obvious factors involved in IAWL's ascendancy--logical reasons accounting for its attainment as a seasonal, cultural institution. On the surface, it would appear that the film's newfound charisma and irrefutable power had simple economic explanations--television could show it forever without paying a penny, public familiarity, and fondness in turn, grew due to its broadcasted repetition. A more thorough analysis into ideological speculations reveals so much more, however. People had to identify with the film's explicit and implicit content and incorporate its meaning into their lives somehow, to accept the picture as readily as they did. The phenomenon is arguably more a product of the seventies viewer than the movie itself.

Consider: Unlike the post-war conditions of the forties when the economy boomed and an exhausted public sought to escape from their negative memory of the war by looking for entertainment that would make them laugh, the seventies were a time of distress and isolation. Society, in the midst of whopping inflation, political dishonesty and ever-changing lifestyles and artistic and cultural expressions, was constantly searching for meaning. With the country suffering from a recession and society becoming desensitized to basic human values through exposure to violence and dishonesty in the media and in television, the individual began to question his own self-worth. People needed to hold onto something, and with friction existing within the traditional family system, there seemed very little salvation out there.

A film like IAWL came along just at the right time, helping to inspire a great number of Americans, and challenging them to reevaluate their own self-worth. The film's message, after all, propagates this: George Bailey reconsiders his existence and recognizes its priceless personal value, for all its failures and simplicities. A meaning-starved public could incorporate this then and apply it to their everyday lives, reinvigorating an optimistic consciousness.

This is not to say that IAWL singlehandedly changed the lackadaisical spirit of recession-ridden, Vietnam-embittered America's. But it did offer its viewer a refreshing, alternative and novel philosophy in such value-deflated times. The story's moral was taken to heart not because it was an escapist alternative but because it was both a realistic and applicable human truth. IAWL teaches us that dreams don't always come true, but these unfulfilled dreams are better than the kind that turn into haunting nightmares. George never leaves Bedford Falls or travels to Europe, but he recognizes the important role he has played in other people's lives and thus comes appreciate his self-meaning. Perhaps its '70s audience could collectively acknowledge this message--at least better than the audience of the '40s.

Next week: An American institution ages gracefully

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