Now perhaps the most beloved American film, It’s a Wonderful Life was largely forgotten for years, due to a copyright quirk.
Only in the late 1970s did it find its audience through repeated TV showings.
Frank Capra’s masterwork deserves its status as a feel-good communal event, but it is also one of the most fascinating films in the American cinema, a multilayered work of Dickensian density.
George Bailey (played superbly by James Stewart) grows up in the small town of Bedford Falls, dreaming dreams of adventure and travel, but circumstances conspire to keep him enslaved to his home turf. Frustrated by his life, and haunted by an impending scandal, George prepares to commit suicide on Christmas Eve.
A heavenly messenger (Henry Travers) arrives to show him a vision: what the world would have been like if George had never been born.
The sequence is a vivid depiction of the American Dream gone bad, and probably the wildest thing Capra ever shot (the director’s optimistic vision may have darkened during his experiences making military films in World War II).
Capra’s triumph is to acknowledge the difficulties and disappointments of life, while affirming--in the teary-eyed final reel--his cherished values of friendship and individual achievement.
It’s a Wonderful Life was not a big hit on its initial release, and it won no Oscars (Capra and Stewart were nominated); but it continues to weave a special magic. --Robert Horton
Miracle on 34th Street
You’d have to be the world’s biggest Scrooge to dislike a holiday classic like Miracle on 34th Street, but genuine movie lovers will insist on watching this perennial favorite in its original black-and-white theatrical release version.
It’s included on disc 2 of this two-disc set, and those who insist on watching the blandly colorized version (oh, the shame of it all!) can restrict their viewing to disc 1. Both versions offer the same commentary track by Maureen O’Hara, recorded at O’Hara’s home in Ireland on August 24, 2006. O’Hara’s congenial commentary reflects her career in the studio system of Hollywood’s golden age; she’s a consummate lady, praising her fellow cast members (especially Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood, whom she refers to as “total professionals”) and making occasional behind-the-scenes observations while offering her perspective on why Miracle is such an enduring dose of holiday sentiment.
O’Hara’s comments are not heard throughout the film, but her silences are relatively brief, and it’s a real treat to hear O’Hara reminiscing nearly 60 years after the film was made.
On disc 2, an episode of the American Movie Classics “Backstory” series is devoted to the writing, production history, and lasting impact of Miracle on 34th Street, featuring clips from several later remakes created for movies and television.
The “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” featurette delves further into the movie’s long-term association with Macy’s department story in Manhattan, with vintage film clips and interviews showing how Miracle on 34th Street is still a vital part of Macy’s holiday celebrations.
Also included is an amusing promotional short that shows how 20th Century Fox cleverly marketed Miracle on 34th Street to appeal to all age groups, including what could very well be the earliest use of the word “groovy” (in this case “groovie”) in a movie promotional trailer.
Rounding out the disc is a colorful gallery of Miracle movie posters, including original and re-release versions. Overall, the two-disc set of Miracle on 34th Street offers a revealing look at the way movies were produced and promoted in the late 1940s, and O’Hara’s commentary serves as a classy reminder that studio-contracted movie stars played an important role in that promotional machinery.