Not Such a Wonderful Life: Watching a Holiday Classic with The Next Generation

Hacking the Holidays

Sometime between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day each year, I pop in a copy of Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, and swim in the sentimentality of community. Without fail, I well up shortly after Ernie Bishop reads Sam Wainwright’s telegram from London, reaching a peak of emotion as the recently deceased kid brother toasts the richest man in town.

This season, I didn’t jump into the sentimental pool alone. My annual date with a few tears of joy included a viewing with my 9-year-old son.

For me, IAWL is about more than idealism and friends coming through in the clutch. The experience also includes watching a long shot of Jimmy Stewart at a train depot as he shifts through several emotional states without saying a word. It’s recognizing the slice of cinema history where theatrical conventions are dominant but deep focus allows you to see detail in the background activity across the street. It’s early sci-fi, dealing with a multiverse and otherworldly interventions. Sharing this richness with offspring is a rite of passage I’ve awaited for a while. I saw IAWL as a gateway drug to Citizen Kane and Wages of Fear.

It didn’t go as pictured.

Carter made it through the movie, but sometime around the christening of Mr. Martini’s new home he asked why this was considered a Christmas movie. Like everyone else, my boy noticed and lamented Uncle Billy’s misplacement of the B&L’s eight large, immediately rendering that plot device implausible. Dead tired from a full evening already, my son later cried himself to sleep about a lost opportunity to read instead of watching a movie he didn’t like. I felt like the Mr. Potter of parenting.

I’ll admit, if I made my initial decision to watch IAWL based on the classic movie trailer, the Frank Capra signature storytelling wouldn’t be a part of my annual repertoire. I had to discover it for myself, in my own way: as a clip in Joe Dante’s Gremlins. By the mid-1980s, I was anticipating the New Year’s Eve televised broadcast on PBS. It grew on me.

I expect it will grow on Carter, too, but in the meantime he offered a few suggestions on how the movie could be improved:

Film it in color. I should have eased him into black-and-white movies all with a viewing of Pleasantville. My youngest son only recently ended his ban on live-action television shows by becoming a fan of Mythbusters. Similarly, my eldest prefers technicolor to the ancient aesthetic. IAWL did get the colorization treatment in 1986, but I refuse to point that out. In this family, that’s not how we roll, son.

George Bailey shouldn’t talk like a gangster. I’m a bit baffled how the guy who played Jefferson Smith and Elwood P. Dowd could be mistaken for a two-bit hood. Jimmy Stewart’s voice has become a caricature over time, and maybe that’s what my boy sensed. When asked who should play the lead, Carter—who clearly hasn’t seen Less Than Zero—suggested Robert Downey, Jr.

Bedford Falls wouldn’t be that different. According to my son, no single person can make that much of a difference as to change a town from having only one neon sign to having hundreds. Plus, shouldn’t Mr. Gower be dead by the time everyone starts singing Auld Lang Syne? Carter may have a point about the dynamics of time and social networks, but it’s difficult to get Clarence’s point across to George if the only noticeable change in Pottersville is the snow.

Hurm. Maybe we’ll try again when he’s a teenager and there’s a version of the movie on the Wii. Hee Haw!

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