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Why It's a Wonderful Life Still Resonates

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I remember reading about a year ago that Maxim magazine had pronounced It's A Wonderful Life (1946), the ageless Frank Capra chestnut, one of the worst Christmas movies ever made.

That claim just seems silly, then and now, as the film is still widely acknowledged as one of our most touching and profound Christmas films. Perhaps Maxim was trying to be provocative or ironic, but they also sorely misled a lot of young people already distracted by whatever scantily clad young lady was gracing their cover that month.

Yet with passably funny Comedy Central take-offs undermining its stature as an important, enduring motion picture, and newer, glitzier fare squeezing out this special stand-by, is the new generation missing out?

At my son's high school two weeks ago, Life took second billing to a showing of Home Alone, an entertaining piece of broad farce to be sure, but as obvious as a pimple on your chin, and really having little to do with the spirit of Christmas, beyond Macaulay Culkin's ditzy parents going on vacation, leaving him to frustrate and injure some improbably inept burglars.

I think the school got their priorities mixed. Reportedly, few of the kids even stayed for the second (better) feature.

It's A Wonderful Life explores much deeper themes connected to what the holidays are traditionally supposed to concern: the values of basic goodness and sacrifice, the gift of friendship, the pitfalls of greed and commercialism, the sense of community and belonging that helps us feel truly connected in a society. As another classic film -- The Apartment -- poignantly evokes, there is no lonelier time for an already lonely person than in December.

For me, December is definitely the cruelest month, the month when years ago I lost my mother to cancer, and more recently, my father. This last sad and emotional experience actually helped me recover a cherished Christmas memory that involves both my late father and this indelible film.

This event would have occurred roughly 25 years ago. I was in the early stages of dating a young woman whom I knew only slightly, and who also had never met my father. I recall her arriving at my father's place, and prior plans to go out were put on hold when we learned that an uninterrupted screening of Wonderful Life was imminent. Suddenly and spontaneously, my father, my date and I sat down in front of the small kitchen television and began the movie, never planning to sit through it to the end. (After all, we'd each seen it.)

What followed bore out director Robert Altman's sage remark to me: "Always watch great movies again. It's worth it because even if the movie hasn't changed, you have. And therefore you'll always see something new." In just over two hours, my date, my father, and I had not budged and were each shedding copious tears, without embarrassment, fairly remarkable in that two people were virtual strangers to the third.

Yet the unlikeliness of it all didn't seem to matter at the time: we were all human, and thus inevitably moved by the heady blend of drama and fantasy unfolding before us once again. And it felt new as falling snow.

It's hard to believe that on first release, the immortal Frank Capra's favorite film received mixed reviews, lost money, and garnered not a single Oscar. (Life did have significant competition, as the outstanding, then more topical Best Years Of Our Lives had opened just a week earlier to rave reviews. It also won a raft of Oscars.)

Only years later, when a new generation discovered Life on TV each Christmas did the movie evolve into a beloved holiday staple. It's immensely gratifying to think that director Capra, James Stewart, the luminous Donna Reed (who almost lost her part to Capra regular Jean Arthur) and other surviving cast members lived to see their Christmas gem finally get its due -- and from the constituency that always counts most: the viewers. (Sadly, veteran character actor Lionel Barrymore, who so memorably played town banker Mr. Potter, the epitome of cruelty, died just as TV was hitting its stride in 1954.)

My Christmas wish: whether you've seen this film once or 20 times, don't let the magic of It's A Wonderful Life slip away or get marginalized by some newer, less demanding offering. If you haven't caught it in a few years, watch it again. Better yet, introduce it to that new generation who were steered wrong by the likes of Maxim. In itself, that will be an act that reflects the true spirit of the holiday.

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