Monday, December 5, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 5: It's a Wonderful Life...Again...

There are few Christmas movies out there that are true staples of the year, and personally I always feel that until they are watched, it is not yet Christmas.  Those include A Christmas Story, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and It's a Wonderful Life.  Regarding the latter, I cannot think of a single film that is more associated with classic Christmas entertainment than that one film.  I personally cannot open a single present until James Stewart has made me weep like a woman when he realizes how important his life really is.  It probably comes as a shock to you then, that It's a Wonderful Life was something of a flop during it's release.  Reviewers called it overly sentimental and trite and audiences didn't exactly show up in droves to see it, letting it finish 6th during release.  For many years, It's a Wonderful Life simply disappeared from public consciousness and was largely forgotten.  During it's absence from popular culture, television executives at ABC and Marlo Thomas (of TV's "That Girl") decided to resurrect it for the small screen in a colorized and true to the original TV remake.  The project was very personal to Thomas and gave her an opportunity to give the film a more feminist swing, while also exploring more of the back stories of the people of Bedford Falls.  The result was a ratings success that was aired and re-aired on television for years until the original film found new life and success on the airwaves.  The question is, does the film hold up or was it simply a case of people thinking it's good because they aren't familiar with the original?  Let's find out as we find out that It Happened One Christmas.

Mary Bailey has had a very intense roller coaster of a life.  She has always cared about what happens to other people before looking after herself, which has caused many of the hardships in her life.  When she was young, she saved her brother Harry from drowning and in doing so rendered herself deaf in one ear.  She planned to go off to see the world when she graduated and then had to take over the Building and Loan Business when her father passes away so that it won't be closed.  She gave up her honeymoon money to keep the business open when the Great Depression struck and she allowed herself to live in poverty in order to fix up an old house that her husband George loved.  It all is constantly getting to Mary but she manages to rise above it until the one Christmas Eve that a payment to the bank examiner goes missing and the town's evil landowner, Mr. Potter, seizes the opportunity to finally shut Mary down.  Mary realizes that with her life insurance and no money, she is worth more dead than she is alive.  So Mary heads to the bridge on the edge of town with plans to hurl herself into the river and commit suicide.  Luckily for her, her guardian angel Clara is there to try to convince her not to.  Mary is then taken on a magical journey to let her decide whether her life actually means something or if she should simply not exist.

It Happened One Christmas is the kind of remake, like Psycho and The Omen, that changes very little in an effort to hold on to the elements that made the original a classic (with the only irony being that It's a Wonderful Life) was never considered a classic until after this.  It repeats scenes and dialogue down to the letter and punctuation and only reverses the gender of George and Mary and changed Clarence the angel into Clara.  Other small changes include more details in the section regarding when the boys go to war and the hyphenating of Mary's last name to include both her maiden and her married name (an anachronism for the time period).  The story is still a good one, however, and the film's only shortcoming is the inevitable comparisons to the original, especially since it is nearly word-for-word identical.  Naturally, anyone wanting to experience this story for the first time should always begin with the James Stewart original, but this one offers plenty to enjoy as well including good performances by great actors and a similar but different experience of a familiar tale.  And, if you're a complete Scrooge about any remake of It's a Wonderful Life, you can at least appreciate this film for bringing it back into the public consciousness so that it could become a classic instead of the forgotten gem it seemed destined to become.

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