Frank Capra

Major anniversary for an American classic: The 'It's a Wonderful Life' arguments roll on

Major anniversary for an American classic: The 'It's a Wonderful Life' arguments roll on

In about a week, Seneca Falls, N.Y., will be hosting a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the release of filmmaker Frank Capra's classic (more to come on that adjective) Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

This town was the model, in many ways, for Capra's vision of the fictional Bedford Falls, home of the angry, but blessed, dreamer named George Bailey, portrayed in the film by the great Jimmy Stewart. Some of the events will be held, I am sure, at the town's It's a Wonderful Life Museum

I wrote about the ongoing interest in this film this week in my On Religion column for the Universal syndicate, after interviewing Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus and digging through my old copies of "The It's a Wonderful Life Book" and "The Name Above the Title," Capra's chatty, but at times philosophical autobiography.

That led to this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), in which host Todd Wilken and focused on a two-part question: (1) Is there any real news in the anniversary of this film and (2), while we are at it, what are journalists to make of the fact that "It's a Wonderful Life" remains so popular AND controversial?

Well, I think it's likely that some feature writers will cover the Seneca Falls events as a hook for coverage of the anniversary -- period. However, the real question is whether anyone will probe deeper, exploring the debates that have raged about this film since it was first released (and flopped at the box office).

What kind of debates? That's where you get into the details of Capra's whole worldview -- which is both Catholic and fiercely American -- and the film's unique blend of stark darkness, even anger, and light. The key is that you really need to watch the whole movie, not just the joyful end of the famous final act.

As a clue to the contents of the podcast, let's compare two different views of this movie. First, there is this material from the values section of the Vatican's Best Films List:

This well-known film directed by Frank Capra is made great by the acting of Jimmy Stewart as a genuinely good man who resigns himself to having all of his life plans thwarted by his duty to his community and family. Sometimes vocation is more about doing one’s duty than fulfilling one’s desires. It is only when Stewart’s character submits entirely to his calling, and sees what good he has done for others in his life, that he realizes that his life has been worth living.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

How did 'Christian' — as an adjective in mass media — come to mean shallow and lousy?

How did 'Christian' — as an adjective in mass media — come to mean shallow and lousy?

On one level, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is a follow-up discussion of my recent blog here about the New York Times article that, allegedly, tried to look for Jesus at Comic-Con 2015. That event in San Diego is, as I described it in my discussion with Todd Wilken, the great annual gathering of the pop-culture tribes for a "sacred dance" of hero worship and, of course, marketing.

The Times team apparently went to this event looking for evidence that the emerging mini-industry of films and television miniseries targeting "Christian" consumers -- in this case, "Christian" clearly means "evangelical" -- just isn't with it, or cool enough, when it comes to competing in the pop-culture major leagues. But that article, I argued, really didn't pay attention to (a) the work of Christians in mainstream media and (b) the ongoing debates, decade after decade, about aith questions raised in franchises such as "Star Wars," zombie movies, the X-Men, Doctor Who, etc., etc., etc.

In the end, the podcast ended up focusing on how the term "Christian" -- used as a adjective for marketing purposes -- has in our times become another way of saying shoddy, cheap, shallow and derivative. This led to some obvious questions.

Was J.S. Bach a "Christian" composer? Is Christopher Parkening a "Christian" classical guitarist?

Was J.R.R. Tolkien a "Christian" novelist?

How about C.S. Lewis? How about Jane Austen? How about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? When Fyodor Dostoyevsky sat down to write, was he thinking to himself, "How can I please the 'Christian' marketplace?" How about Flannery O'Connor? By the way, her work was the subject of my "On Religion" column for Universal this past week.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Why are 'Christian movies' so bad? Talking about Jolie, Zamperini, 'Unbroken' and wisdom from Robert Duvall

Why are 'Christian movies' so bad? Talking about Jolie, Zamperini, 'Unbroken' and wisdom from Robert Duvall

It's a question I have puzzled over throughout my career as a journalist and as a mass-media professor: Why are "Christian movies" so bad?

Yes, there need to be quotes around the term "Christian movies." We are not talking about movies that are made by talented Christians who work in mainstream film. We're not talking about Frank "It's a Wonderful Life" Capra in the past or Scott "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" Derrickson in the present.

No, we're talking about, well, you know -- "Christian movies." The kinds of movies that resemble fundraising letters aimed at people in niche pews. Yes, Hollywood makes some preachy movies, too. That's a topic for another day, another podcast.

But why are those "Christian movies" so bad? Another Christian in the Hollywood mainstream, David "Home Improvement" McFadzean once offered up this brutal quote: The typical "Christian movie" is very similar to a porno movie. "It has terrible acting. It has a tiny budget. And you know exactly how it's going to end."

Ouch.

Please respect our Commenting Policy