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Why It's A Wonderful Life Still Resonates

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I remember several years back hearing that Maxim Magazine had pronounced the ageless Frank Capra chestnut It's A Wonderful Life (1946) one of the worst Christmas movies ever made.

The statement sounded silly, then and now, as the film is still acknowledged to be one of our most touching, even profound Christmas films.

Yet with glitzier fare squeezing out this special old stand-by, is the new generation missing out on something special? I think so.

How can I forget that at my son's high school three years ago, Life took a back seat to a showing of Home Alone (1990), an entertaining piece of broad comedy to be sure, but as obvious as a pimple on your chin, and having little to do with the true spirit of the holiday, beyond Macaulay Culkin's ditzy parents going on Christmas vacation and leaving him behind with some improbably inept burglars.

Life, on the other hand, explores deeper areas more closely connected to what the holidays are traditionally supposed to mean: the value 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 not alone -- in short, the fundamental, overarching importance of the ties that bind.

As another classic holiday-themed film, Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), poignantly evokes, there is no lonelier time for a lonely person than during December.

The redemptive message of Life is that even though George Bailey feels trapped, frustrated, and worst of all, a failure, he is never once, in fact, truly alone.

For myself, December is and will always be the cruelest month, the month when years ago I lost my mother to cancer, and more recently, my father. But without dissecting It's A Wonderful Life further, the film brings back an indelible Christmas memory that involves my late Dad.

This happened roughly twenty-five years ago. I was actually on a date with a girl whom I knew only slightly; in addition she had never met Pop. She arrived at our apartment, and we delayed our plans to go out when Dad informed us that an uninterrupted screening of Life was imminent.

Spontaneously, the three of us sat down in front of our small kitchen television and began the movie; of course, I did not intend to sit through it to the end.

Robert Altman, the late director, once said: "Always see great movies again. It's worth it because even though the movie hasn't changed, you have. And you'll always see something new." The end of this story, permanently engraved on my memory, bears out his wisdom: in just over two hours, my father, my date and I were all shedding tears, and this with two people virtual strangers to the third.

In that moment, it didn't feel odd or embarrassing: we were each human; we were each enormously moved by the timeless fantasy unfolding before us once again.

And even though we'd seen it before, even though we recognized the movie was an antique, somehow it felt as new as falling snow.

Take a tip from me: if it's been a while, watch It's A Wonderful Life again this year. And if your kids or grand-kids haven't seen it, make them watch it with you.

They'll thank you later.

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