An antidote to the seasonal schlock

slfsdlkj;lDecember 19, 2013 

Christmas is the season for schlock.

We all know that, even if we are reluctant to admit it. But under torture, most of us would confess to loving the gaudy glitter, the blaring colors and the overall tackiness of a Christmas season in full swing.

And we are secretly comforted by the fact this it lasts from the day after Halloween until the day after Christmas itself, and perhaps a little longer. We’re still likely to see a Christmas ad here and there well into the new year.

TV, of course, is a treasure trove of Christmas schlock. The number of corny musical shows, Christmas-themed movies and other network holiday specials airing this season is astounding.

You might try to seek out a traditional movie that seems to evoke a simpler, less consumer-driven celebration of the season, something like the black-and-white version of “A Christmas Carol.” But you’re likely to stumble over Michael Buble’s Third Annual Christmas Special while looking for it, and end up watching that instead.

But at some point, all this gets to be too much even if you love the seasonal schlock. And if you want to escape for a couple of hours from the tinsel, the relentless advertising, the plastic trees, the bad cookies and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” try watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It airs 8 p.m. Friday on NBC and, for those who miss it, once more on Tuesday, Christmas Eve, at 8 p.m.

The soothing warmth that comes from watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” is old news to millions of viewers who consider the movie part of their annual Christmas ritual. What some might not know is that it wasn’t always a family favorite.

When the movie, directed by the legendary Frank Capra, was released in 1946, it did so to mixed reviews and a lukewarm reception by audiences. It lost money at the box office that year and, while it was nominated for five Academy Awards, it won none, losing out to that year’s mega-hit, “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

Bosley Crowther, reviewing “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the New York Times, found it to be a “quaint and engaging modern parable on virtue being its own reward.” But, he added, “the weakness of this picture ... is the sentimentality of it – its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra’s people are charming, his small town is quite a beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But sometimes they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.”

Several reviewers, including the New Yorker’s, trashed the movie. Even stranger, though, was a memo from May 26, 1947, from the FBI: “With regard to the picture ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ... 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 ... is a common trick used by Communists. ... This picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

Imagine that, depicting bankers as heartless, money-grubbing meanies! What was that commie Capra thinking?

While “It’s a Wonderful Life” eventually made back its production costs, it soon disappeared from sight. To attain its current status as a Christmas classic, it had to be resurrected.

That occurred starting in the early 1970s after the movie’s copyright ran out and it entered the public domain. PBS stations started running it to compete with flashy network offerings, and eventually it started to pop up everywhere during the holiday season, aired for free by local stations.

By the 1980s, new generations of viewers had fallen in love with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That was gratifying for Capra, who lived until 1991 to the age of 94. Both he and Jimmy Stewart, star of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” said it was their favorite movie.

There’s a colorized version. It’s an abomination; don’t watch it.

But if you’re tired of schlock (or, as some might say, you want to see some 1946-vintage schlock), give “It’s a Wonderful Life” a try.

Or, like me, watch it for the 30th time.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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