It’s the holidays and that means I’m going to make my kids watch Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life whether they like it or not (they like it a bit, but not much). Because my kids are kids and kids are funny, when Jimmy Stewart appears on screen, all whole milk and decency, they’ll ask the same question they do when faced with any black-and-white photograph or movie: Daddy, what was the world like before color? I’ll explain that in the early 20th century a bookish scientist by the name of Herbert Kalmus developed a process by which film could capture color, but I’ll know, even as I do it, that I’m not really answering the pertinent question. The answer they are really looking for isn’t about celluloid or history or entertainment. What they want to know is how does this thing they’re watching relate to their lives now and how should it make them feel.
Even for me, someone that grew up in the 1980s, Frank Capra’s masterpiece is a historical artifact that’s hard to grapple with. There are lessons about communalism, banking regulation, and fate that I can’t get my arms around. But what makes the movie weird for me and downright confounding for my kids is that it’s definitely a Christmas movie, definitely a very good film, and definitely heartwarming. It’s perhaps the finest example (Miracle on 34th Street gives it a run for its money) of a genre that bit the dust decades ago.
Capra’s world is simple and the families that inhabit it are really happy together during the holiday season. The bad guy doesn’t have a family and doesn’t experience holiday joy because those things are, in Bedford Falls, inseparable. We get our joy from each other! This premise, basic but effective, is pretty much the opposite of every set up for the holiday movies and specials that were popular when I was young and remain popular now. The Home Alone franchise, which depicts family as criminally malfeasant and also unpleasant, looms large as an example of a movie in which family represents a hurdle. Then there’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which wraps its timid tremor of family warmth in volumes of petty argument and true contempt. Nor let us forget the breathtaking arc of Billy Bob Thorton’s Willie T. Soke in Bad Santa, the familial discord at the heart of the Meet the Parents franchise (an honorary Yuletide movie), and the existence of Dennis Leary’s The Ref. These movies use either the idea that the holidays are stressful or that families are stressful to fuel plots optimized for entertainment. This is the go-to strategy for modern Hollywood Christmas movies.
The move away from Capra and towards dysfunction is not just artistic. It’s broadly cultural. In the 1940s and 1950s, we looked to Hollywood to lead us. Today, we look to Hollywood to reflect our realities. Relatable is monetizable, which means fewer movies about debutantes and small-town heroes and more movies about workaholics trudging through merriment. As acting has become more naturalistic — no one talks like Jimmy in Wonderful Life — so too, I suppose have depictions of our intimate lives. And it’s no wonder the more memorable performances (aside from Will Ferrell as an elf) depict unhappiness. Dysfunction is more compelling than joy — at least in the eyes of people trained to consume that sort of thing.
These films are proudly pablum trash-movies for ugly-sweatered softies.
Another reason pure holiday sweetness is so foreign to my children is, I suspect, the ghettoizing of dewy-eyed Christmas sentiment to that apparatus of family values propaganda. Between October 27th and January 1st, The Hallmark Channel, which has its roots in Christian broadcasting, is premiering a whopping 33 (somewhat) original Christmas movies. With titles like Engaging Father Christmas, Coming Home for Christmas, and Marry Me At Christmas, these made-for-television morality tales play some of the same chords as the classics. But these movies are not intended to be high art or even great pop culture in the vein of Capra’s work. These films are proudly pablum trash-movies for ugly-sweatered softies. These movies aren’t about narrative, they are about sentiment. This is what they’re so easily dismissed and also why my children, sons of people who don’t go in for that sort of thing, have never really seen them.
The proof that It’s A Wonderful Life is worthy of its canonical status is in how many emotional notes it hits. It even touches true despair as George contemplates self-slaughter. It’s like life — or watching your own funeral — in that the highs and lows come quickly. Except that there’s a moral here. George Bailey learns that his disappointments are small compared to the joy he’s brought his neighbors and his family. He learns to trust the people he loves. For me and for my children, the takeaway is that family and friends are a blessing, a source of joy, and the rope that tethers you to this world like a Christmas tree on top of the Volvo.
I’m the first to admit I don’t pause to contemplate the nice lessons like that often and that I don’t get particularly sentimental around the holidays. Still, I yearn for days I don’t even remember when the happy family was a holiday default and the presumption of misery was considered evil. Cynicism, though funny, feels so hopeless. There’s no heart in it and no life. It’s a dull, black and white lens through which to see a colorful world. I want to move past it and I want the same for my kids. And as George Bailey screams from the bridge in It’s A Wonderful Life, “I wanna live again.”