This weekend in Seneca Falls, New York, the surviving cast members who played the Bailey children – Karolyn Grimes (ZuZu), Carol Coombs (Janie), and Jimmy Hawkins (Tommy) – in the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life are gathering to celebrate the film’s 70th anniversary. While it is debatable whether director Frank Capra based Bedford Falls (the film’s fictional town) on Seneca Falls, the people who played these memorable characters believe it to be so, and that is why they are there to celebrate.
While Grimes believes that Seneca Falls was the inspiration for the film’s setting, she also thinks that Capra never made the connection public for a specific reason – he wanted the audience to think of Bedford Falls as any town in order “to identify with their own community.” Of course, the universality of the time and place is what made the film connect with the audience when it premiered in December 1946 and that has continued to happen for viewers of the film for the last 70 years.
The first time I saw the film was back in the 1980s. At the time my mother noted it would be on TV that evening and that she remembered it to be a great movie. Since I was going out I popped a blank tape into the VCR and recorded it. I eventually sat down to watch it and fast-forwarded the commercials that appeared on old Channel 5 here in New York – most notably numerous ones with Tom Carvel hawking his ice cream cakes for the holidays.
I was simply blown away by Frank Capra’s masterpiece – I had never seen anything like it before. A normal everyday guy named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart in a magnificent Oscar nominated performance) gets to a point in his life where he feels that he needs to kill himself, and an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent down to show him what a poor choice that would be.
To accomplish this task Clarence takes George to an alternate world where he had never been born. Hundreds of lives are affected by George’s absence, including almost everyone in the small town of Bedford Falls, but also many others a world away during the war. George likes the idea of having no strings attached at first, but as he gradually becomes aware of his signifcance in all these people’s lives, he realizes that his life is not only worth keeping but that it was truly important to so many others – he had actually made a tangible difference in their lives.
All these years later I have watched It’s a Wonderful Life probably over 100 times. I usually take it out (now I have it on DVD) on Thanksgiving weekend and watch it with the kids as I put up the tree and decorate the house. This is a cursory viewing, meant to let the kids see it and for me to watch some of it without getting emotionally involved.
The next viewing will be when I am alone, and it will be a fully invested one. This was the case last evening when, after the kids had gone to bed and the wife went shopping, I could sit down and truly enjoy it. As always, I find some new things in it (even after all this time) and savor all the moments I remember so well and, despite seeing it so many times before, I reach those moments when a box of Kleenex is in order.
I will probably watch it again with my children during Christmas vacation when there is no school, and then sometimes during the year when I am feeling down and I need a little shot of Christmas cheer, I’ll pop the movie in to be reminded of the happiest season of all.
One thing that any new viewer – and I am amazed at how many people have told me that they haven’t watched this film yet – should know is to be prepared to go down with George as his world seems to crumble. The film takes us to some very dark places, and as we see the man we know who is so good at heart break, tears inevitably flow and we wonder if he can make it through.
For me these are tough scenes to watch, but the most notable one is when George finally explodes in the family’s living room, knocking things down and smashing his blueprints and the children’s drawings. His wife Mary (a terrific Donna Reed) and the kids are shocked by their father’s incongruent behavior, and when Mary sends George out into the cold night, we know he is headed for the darkest place of all.
Throughout the film though there is a ray of hope – the light that comes through the darkness to eventually brighten the world. This is why we stick with George all the way, even when it seems as if he is going to destroy himself. When he does see the light, there is glorious relief for the viewer, and Stewart does a remarkable job of transforming inside and brightening the character – his redemption is a beacon that brightens our own lives, which is why the film still endears itself again and again to people all over the world.
You may not be able to get to Seneca Falls this weekend to celebrate, but all you have to do is pop the DVD (or the newly released Platinum Anniversary Edition Blu-ray) into the machine, grab some popcorn, and visit good old Bedford Falls. You’ll definitely be glad that you did.