My grandmother used to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas. During the several years in which she lived with us in our ranch house in Wisconsin, Mama would usually retreat to her basement bedroom so she could view her favorite movie without all the noise of grandchildren and pets that surrounded the TV in our family room. After she moved out, it would strike me how dark and cold the room that was now used for storage was, when I would go grab something – one of Mom’s 1950s dresses, maybe — from it. Mama made the dank space warm and grandmotherly, with her constant crocheting and her love of old Frank Capra movies or TV shows starring Barbara Stanwyck.
The woman born Guyla Duncan didn’t have the easiest life; her World War I veteran, jack-of-all-trades husband had trouble staying in one place, and away from the bottle. They moved constantly, from Florida to Kentucky to California then back to Florida. So Guyla wasn’t too picky about her surroundings; a basement in the cold Midwest kept barely tolerable by the orange glow of a space heater was fine by her.
Mama survived the Depression, two world wars, six children, breast cancer, and her husband, so she had a pretty realistic view of the world. She knew damn well life wasn’t always wonderful. And yet she loved this sentimental holiday movie, with its beyond-happy ending and steadfast faith in bucolic small-town America. I came to love it too, once I got beyond my adolescent snobbiness. In fact, the screwball comedies of the golden age of Hollywood are one of my favorite things in the world, up there with Brazilian music, feminist art, and whiskers on kittens.
Using the tools of urbane high jinks, slapstick comedy, and witty romantic banter, filmmakers such as Capra, Howard Hawks, and Preston Sturges offered social commentary dressed up as popcorn entertainment. Stanley Cavell has written about how these comedies of remarriage reimagined the relationships between sexes, with women given equal footing with men as smart, classy, independent creatures — Katherine Hepburn was as adept at cutting repartee as Cary Grant. Many of these movies also flipped class structure – the department-store owner hanging with his employees, pouring coca cola into a glass of rare wine and discovering it really does taste better. It’s a Wonderful Life offers a blistering critique of Big Money and corporate banks and a plea for small, family-owned businesses. This is not old-fashioned mawkishness: In the TV show The Newsroom, Olivia Munn’s character uses Capra’s film to explain to Emily Mortimer’s the basis and importance of the Glass-Steagall Act.
It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946 – scarcely a wonderful time in world history. It pretty much bombed back then, but it has become perhaps the most beloved movie in all of American cinema. That was the decade Mama’s son Leon was injured at Iwo Jima and she survived a double mastectomy. This movie, like all the screwball comedies, offered a vision of the way things could, and should, be, not the way they were. It provided relief, comfort, a good laugh, and hope, all while pointedly critiquing the evil of capitalism gone awry.
That was 70 years ago. On Friday night, you can relive that first run, when the San Pedro International Film Festival shows It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen at the historic Warner Grand Theater. I probably don’t need to point out how appropriate this film is to this moment in time, how it’s an example of art that speaks to, and not down to, multiple constituents who feel disenfranchised in our current society, while always keeping its thumb firmly on the real villain. Or how we need its humor, its love, its screwball hope.
I used to see Mama watching It’s a Wonderful Life, but I never once sat down and watched it with her from start to finish – just as my son never watches it with me. I wish I had asked her what she got from it, if she felt keenly its affirmation of rootedness – of characters who may dream of the travel they see in posters – of lassoing the stars — but in fact never leave home, and live happily ever after.