Those instructions are issued by my rock in life, my best friend, my inspiration and my most trusted and loyal companion. The woman I love and adore with all my heart. My school friend over the last 40 years, my girlfriend for 25 years and my wife for 18 years, Gail is both my boss and my best friend. She has ordered me to lighten up and her instincts are normally better than mine so I will try to comply.
Gail, me and my 13 year old daughter Gabrielle were tucked up together in front of our cosy fire and big Christmas tree watching the best Christmas movie of all time last night. I’m not talking about ‘National Lampoons Christmas Vacation’, or ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’, or ‘Christmas with the Kranks’ or even ‘Miracle of 34th Street’, all of which are excellent Christmas films. And I’m certainly not talking about ‘Die Hard’, which is never a Christmas film. I’m talking about ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.
We have seen it loads of times but every year we watch it again close to Christmas day. We laugh and cry in equal measure. It is a story full of hope that promotes the values of human solidarity and friendship above individual greed and selfishness. The story the film is based on, ‘The Greatest Gift’, was written in 1939 when the world was plunged into a dark but ultimately necessary war against the inhumanity and savage cruelty of Hitler’s fascist forces as they sought to dominate the world. Perhaps it was meant as an antidote to that darkness.
The name Philip Van Doren Stern is not as recognisable as Frank Capra (born Francesco Rosario Capra) but both were born into humble households in America, Van Doren Stern the child of immigrants from Bavaria and Capra an Italian immigrant. Although started in 1939 Van Doren Stern didn’t finish his 4,000 word story until 1943 but couldn’t find a publisher. It is a story which essentially compels us all to appreciate what we have in life and what we have achieved, large and small, through the trials and tribulations of an ordinary man who reaches such a low point in his own life that he contemplates suicide.
A second class angel seeking his first class wings intervenes to prevent the man from jumping to his death from a bridge. He grants him his wish of never being born and allows him to see for himself the consequences. The brother whose life he had saved in a grave instead of becoming a war hero, the loved ones whose lives took less happy paths without him and the friends who didn’t benefit from his kindness and friendship. Saddened by what he saw the man realised he was worth something after all and that he had helped many people in his life. He begged the angel to reverse the initial wish and the powerful message that is conveyed by the tale is that life itself is the greatest gift of all.
Van Doren Stern’s story is as inspiring in fact as it is in fiction. Started in 1939, finished in 1943, he refused to be defeated by the fact no publisher was interested in it. He printed off 200 copies into a 21 page booklet and sent them to his friends and family as Christmas presents in December 1943. Two years later he privately published it and copyrighted it. That was a wise move. The film production company RKO purchased the film rights to the story before selling them on for the initial purchase price, $10,000, to the production company of Frank Capra in 1945. He and other writers adapted the story for the big screen and the story, ‘The Greatest Gift’, became the film, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in 1946.
The core message in the story was obviously retained but welcome adaptations included the changing of the man’s surname from George Pratt to George Bailey and the changing of the surname of the woman he married. She was originally Mary Thatcher but was changed to Mary Hatch. I simply couldn’t retain the same warmth for this film if the main female role was a Thatcher and the main man was a Pratt…
Although considered a classic Christmas movie nowadays, securing top spot in Channel 5’s ‘Greatest 100 Christmas Movies’ two nights ago, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was actually panned as a flop in 1946/47 and lost a considerable amount of money for the film studio at the time. However it has stood the test of time and should, in my opinion, be required viewing in every household and included in the senior school curriculum.
The film is so good it attracted opprobrium from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for its display of “communist tendencies” and its attempt to “discredit bankers”. The triumph of basic human solidarity over cold and callous business practices was too much for the paranoid and witch-hunting FBI to stomach. On May 1947 they issued an angry memo:
"With regard to the picture 'It's a Wonderful Life', [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. [In] addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters."
Movies that “deliberately” malign the “upper class” are always welcome in my book but in truth the core message of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is that true wealth is not defined by the size of bank accounts, cost of cars or value of houses but by family, friendships, virtue and principles. Integrity is priceless is what ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ conveys in abundance. No wonder the multi-award winning director Frank Capra insisted throughout his life that it was the best film he ever made. If the FBI doesn’t like something then it’s probably worth watching in my opinion.
I start out trying to be less serious, more irreverent but my whole adult life has been consumed by a burning anger against injustice, poverty and needless wars so I can’t help myself. Gail will understand. She knows me better than anyone.
Tomorrow is Christmas day and even those of us without religious beliefs can still enjoy and endorse the encouragements to treat each other with love and tolerance and respect at this time of the year and use those sentiments to promote such feelings throughout the year. Remember regardless of colour, creed, nationality or religion we are all members of the one race, the human race.
When I make my annual appearance in Our Lady of Lourdes chapel tonight for the traditional midnight mass service (a family tradition that now takes place at 7pm or 9pm in this Parish) the most potent message from the Catholic Priest will be his exhortation for all of us in attendance to offer each other a sign of peace by shaking the hands of those next to you and around you. Strangers whose hands you embrace as a sign of friendship. That’s the symbolism that should be universal from all religions and none. Those strangers are merely friends we are yet to meet.
Just as Philip Van Doren Stern tried to teach us in his ‘The Greatest Gift’ story and Frank Capra sought to convey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ our treatment of other human beings, our acts of kindness and compassion towards one and other and our willingness to support and respect others are the real riches in life.
The closing scene of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has a poem of one of Scotland’s finest sons, the sublime Robert Burns, playing in the background. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is being sung as George Bailey opens the gift left under the Christmas tree for him by his departed angel. That gift is his copy of the Mark Twain classic, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, with the magnificent inscription: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends”.
Happy Christmas everyone.
The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.