It’s hard to make a Christmas movie. No film adaption of A Christmas Carol has quite lived up to Lionel Barrymore’s magnificently hammy renditions for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. The Bishop’s Wife has a stellar cast — Loretta Young as a neglected woman, Cary Grant as an angel just this side of seductive — but it’s been largely forgotten. The film for the season should be Miracle on 34th Street, the movie that cemented a New York Christmas in the popular imagination. (If Barbara Stanwyk’s boss in the wonderful comedy Christmas in Connecticut had appreciated Manhattan in the snow, there wouldn’t have been any movie.) It features a prepubescent Natalie Wood, far less annoying than she should be, as she learns the true meaning of Christmas, and veteran character actor Edmund Gwynn just nails Saint Nick, doing his part to cement the image. But really, it’s 90 minutes spent demonstrating that yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus (and also that New Yorkers are magnificently tolerant of crazy people who are clean and don’t bother anyone). The movie that seems to have run away with the season is a rather strange choice, all things considered. People love to hate It’s a Wonderful Life. Those killjoys at the Rand Institute hate it because it makes Potter, the wealthiest man in town, into a villain. In Bradley Denton‘s wonderful "The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians", Lenny Bruce is threatened with the torments of an afterlife spent watching it (and having his mouth filled with bugs every time he swears). Notorious grinch Anil Dash and many of my friends have told me they hate it. But I think most of them hate the phenomenon that it’s become — in an example of the power of the commons, It’s a Wonderful Life (which doesn’t spend most of its screen time on Christmas in Bedford Falls) fell out of copyright in 1974 and was picked up as cheap holiday fare by television stations throughout the country. Twenty years of December marathons followed, until Republic Pictures used its copyright on the film’s score to yank it back into control. By that time, Americans had firmly associated the film with Yuletide spirit.
But there’s a reason that Jonathan Lethem’s Kafka Americana posits Franz Kafka writing the script. Based on, of all things, a Christmas card, the tale is a dark one. George Bailey contemplates suicide one Christmas. His dreams of going to college and seeing the world have been abandoned; the bank he runs is about to be ruined by the wealthy Mr. Potter (played by the definitive Scrooge, Lionel Barrymore). An angel descends from on high and shows him a vision of what life in Bedford Falls would have been if he had never been born, and it’s awful. Potterville is Frank Capra’s idea of hell. Capra loved movies about everymen from everytown — the "Mr. Smiths" and "John Does" of his titles — and It’s a Wonderful Life is the great expression of his vision that America is the country one man can stand up and make a difference. (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is in part John Ford’s rejoinder to this particular version of the American myth.)
But the town’s outpouring of love doesn’t really change anything. Bailey remains selfless to the point of self-injury — not just the accident in which he lost his hearing in one ear while saving his brother’s life or the beating he takes for preventing a fatal accident on his boyhood job, but the mistakes that have put Bailey’s savings and loan on the brink of insolvency, even Bailey’s decision to run it rather than leave town for college are all the result of Bailey trying to do the right thing at great personal cost. (And George is a little too fond of the sauce — although at Christmastime, with all the shopping- and family-related stress, can you really blame him?) Even with the crisis averted and angel Clarence getting his wings, it’s hard to imagine Bailey’s life being fulfilling in the sort of self-actualized way that a modern film would have it. The American practice of Christmas isn’t about God, and it certainly isn’t sacrifice, O. Henry notwithstanding. It’s a family celebration of plenty, Thanksgiving a month later. A Christmas Carol says that Christmas is a time of goodwill to one’s fellow man; Miracle on 34th Street says that if we just believe, Santa is real. It’s a Wonderful Life says that a man’s worldly failure can be nothing of the sort. It’s terribly out of keeping with how the season is actually celebrated, but twenty years of nonstop broadcasts seem to have wallpapered over that little problem. It could be worse; it could have been Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and everytime we swore at the screen, our mouths could have filled with bugs.