How many Americans over the age of 12 are there who can’t identify the origin of that phrase?
The naturalization division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service should require every new applicant to see It’s a Wonderful Life on DVD, with the soundtrack in his native language. He would not be granted citizenship until he could pass a test, in English, about the movie. No one should be granted American citizenship who does not have a good understanding of the United States Constitution and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Why is that movie so important? There are a lot of reasons. Here is a short list:
1. Because the owner forgot to renew its copyright in 1974, television stations could show it for free. Anyone could reproduce it on videotape without paying a royalty. The movie did not become a Christmas tradition until copyright lapsed. (There is now a dispute over the copyright of the movie’s music, which is why NBC is the only network to show it these days. Until this is resolved, the movie’s universality has been compromised.)
2. Its themes are fundamental to the American character: good vs. evil, David vs. Goliath, money won’t buy happiness, personal salvation through good works, and — neglected by most reviewers — one of the most powerful themes in American history and uniquely American: national redemption by home ownership through mortgages.
3. Angelology. In America, theology is considered divisive; so, God is rarely a topic in mixed company. But everyone seems to have an opinion on angels. There are two main denominations: Cary Grant’s (The Bishop’s Wife), aimed at suave Episcopalian types, and the Clarence-ites — all the rest of us. There is also a growing Della Reese sect, but I do not attend her services, so I will not comment. The Denzel Washington sect never really caught on. He was too bland, I think. But Clarence’s is by far the largest and most dedicated denomination. The name of the actor who played Clarence is a matter of advanced trivia contests, and he is remembered only for this role.
WHAT DIFFERENCE HAVE I MADE?
A review by James Berardinelli is a good introduction to the movie.
What is it about this film, an uplifting, sentimental fable about the importance of the individual, that strikes a responsive chord with so many viewers? Some might argue that it has something to do with the season, but I don’t buy that reasoning. It’s a Wonderful Life is just as good in July as in December — the time of the year has little to do with motion picture quality. Rather, I think It’s a Wonderful Life has earned its legion of followers because it effectively touches upon one basic truth of life that we all would like to believe — that each of us, no matter how apparently insignificant, has the power to make a difference, and that the measure of our humanity has nothing to do with fame or money, but with how we live our life on a day-to-day basis. It’s a Wonderful Life asks and answers a question that all of us think of at one time or another: “What would this world be like if I had never been born?”
He is wrong about the centrality of Christmas. To say that this movie is just as good in July is the equivalent of saying that Christmas carols are just as good in July. Technically, this is correct; aesthetically, it isn’t. The movie is about redemption. It’s a Christmas movie.
“What would this world be like if I had never been born?” This a major question in the life of most people, asked at one point or another, but usually later in life, after a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. The greatest single gift of It’s a Wonderful Life is that children are introduced to this crucial question early in life. I hope the legal conflict over the music copyright is settled in favor of the public domain, for generations of children should have an opportunity to see this movie at an early age as a family event. I know of no movie that asks the question better, artistically speaking, and only one that asks it every year: A Christmas Carol, especially Alistair Sim’s version. It, too, is a Christmas redemption movie.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)