It's A Wonderful Life

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.

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Concerning 'holiday movies,' 'Christmas movies' and the civil religion found in shopping malls

Concerning 'holiday movies,' 'Christmas movies' and the civil religion found in shopping malls

It was one of quieter moments in the Christmas classic "Home Alone," tucked in between the church-pew chat with the scary next door neighbor and the open warfare between young Kevin McCallister and the "wet bandits." Do you remember the line?

Bless this highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.

As prayers go, it wasn't much. However, this iconic moment also featured an heroic America child making the sign of the cross as he blessed his food. That's not your typical Hollywood gesture, either.

It caught my attention and it also intrigued the conservative Jewish film critic Michael Medved, especially when the film became a (surprise!) runaway hit with a US box-office gross the came close to $300,000,000.

I talked to Medved about the film back in 1991 -- pre-WWW, so no URL to that full column -- and he told me that "Home Alone" was a perfect example of a typical "holiday movie" that, with just a few nods of respect for faith and family, turned into a box-office smash that is also known as a true "Christmas movie."

I've been interested in this phenomenon ever since and, this week, that served as the hook for the latest GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, there is much that can be said about that "holiday movie" tag.

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