It’s been another tough old year for many, so what better way to lift the spirits on a December night than by cracking open the Quality Street and watching a Christmas movie.
Tune in to Christmas24 or the Hallmark channel from mid-October and viewers can expect to be inundated with a plethora of seasonal film fayre, mainly involving a big city type returning to their small-town roots to buy out a beloved local business, only for their plans to be thwarted by the plucky locals and ‘unexpectedly’ find love along the way.
The first Christmas film was a short called Santa Claus, by British film pioneer George Albert Smith in 1898. At under two minutes in length, it tells the story of St Nicholas visiting two children and delivering their presents for Christmas day. Santa Claus can currently be viewed on YouTube and features what ‘is believed to be the cinema’s earliest example of parallel action’, according to Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline.
Since then film makers have explored and exploited the meaning of Christmas through every genre of cinema and included school plays, singing frogs and pigs, magical trains, oversized Santa’s helpers, savvy tweenagers, dancing Prime Ministers and the worst office Christmas party ever to take place in a tower block, into their festive stories (no prizes will be given for getting the references but you will have an enormous amount of self-satisfaction – Happy Holidays!).
However, one film has truly stood the test of time and has become a Christmas tradition with audiences around the world. On December 23rd, the true classic It’s a Wonderful Life, returns for its annual screening at the Elgiva to spread a little Yuletide magic.
Despite the cosy sentiment of the title, Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy begins as a near tragedy. Everyman George Bailey (played by James Stewart) lives in Bedford Falls, an all-American small town from which he could never escape. Viewing his life as a huge failure, he becomes so desperate that he sees the only way out as jumping off a bridge. Before he reaches the icy depths of the river, he is rescued by Clarence, his guardian angel (Henry Travers), who shows George how he has touched the lives of his wife, Mary, (Donna Reed) and townspeople, and how things would have turned out for the worse, had he not been alive.
It’s a Wonderful Life premiered on December 20th, 1946 at New York’s Globe theatre, with its general release in the following January. It had not been intended to be a Christmas film, but opened at the end of the year to be eligible for the 1946 Oscars, ultimately losing out to Goldwyn’s post war epic, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Despite receiving five academy award nominations, It’s a Wonderful Life was not a hit upon first release, receiving mixed reviews and making $3.3 million at the box office, which resulted as a loss for RKO. It was deemed as overly sentimental by the critics, too pessimistic for a post WWII audience and it even caught the attention of the FBI, who alleged that the narrative had Communist sympathies owing to the negative portrayal of bankers.
James Stewart had previously worked with Frank Capra on You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Stewart had been serving in the US Air Force during World War II and had come home in 1945 to find himself without a studio to work for or an agent to give him roles. Capra wanted Stewart to play George Bailey and pitched him the complicated premise. Based on their previous successful collaborations and wanting to act, Stewart agreed to take the chance with the role that would later become synonymous with his image.
It was not until 1974, when the film’s copyright had lapsed, allowing television networks to broadcast freely on repeat, that It’s a Wonderful Life found new popularity and a much deserved wider audience. Happily, the fable of George Bailey and Bedford Falls has since been reassessed. With more than a passing nod to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the message that the repercussions of one person’s good deeds are felt by many, the film hit a chord with audiences throughout the world, and is often cited in the Greatest Films of All Time lists.