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- Sicilian-born American film director, producer and writer (1897-1991)
In the bleak midwinter — and this one is bleaker than most — what we need is a decent Christmas film, that sums up the true meaning of Christmas. No, I don’t mean Will Ferrell’s bloody Elf. This year, a Radio Times poll gave first place to Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.
No surprises there. The glorious thing about AWL is that it embraces sentiment and sends a resounding raspberry at cynicism and pessimism. The essence of the thing is that everyone counts; we all matter, no matter how rubbish things look.
It’s not entirely surprising that it’s followed in the poll by The Muppet Christmas Carol. Capra took the tale from a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, The Greatest Gift (1943), which was in turn derived from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Both look back at a life, weigh it up, and consider the possibilities of redemption. In the film, one George Bailey, a family man, is contemplating financial ruin and suicide. But he’s saved from jumping off a bridge because someone else has fallen in the icy water and he jumps in to save a life rather than throw one away. When they’re drying off, the grateful stranger introduces himself as Clarence Odbody, AS2, or angel second class, his guardian angel. Heaven has been on the receiving end of lots of prayers for George and Clarence has been sent to sort things out, and so earn his angel wings.
It is at this point that sophisticated individuals, allergic to whimsy, may make gagging noises, but bear with it. George wishes he’d never been born and Clarence lets him see what would have happened if he hadn’t. It turns out the world would have been a worse, bleaker place. George finds that his acts of goodness and self-sacrifice for family and community really did make a difference. And so he returns to his family just in time for Christmas, and things work out.
It’s a joyous working out of the Christmas story and it must have saved any number of poor, despairing souls from the brink. At the end George runs back home, shouting Merry Christmas at everyone. And for once, you see what it means.