Best Christmas movie ever? Not so fast

Christmas season is upon us. Christmas Village is up and running at the Inner Harbor. The row houses on Hampden’s 34th Street are brandishing over-the-top holiday decorations. And many families plan to gather before a TV or movie screen to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film, a story of one man’s Christmas redemption, was named best Christmas movie by the movie-rating website Rotten Tomatoes. Viewing it is a seasonal ritual for many on par with trimming the tree and giving gifts. (The Senator Theatre will screen the film on Dec. 22 and 23.)

Surprisingly, the film was not always a holiday favorite. Upon its release in 1946 it was shunned by movie-goers and lost money for director Frank Capra. But like the politicians, old buildings and prostitutes in the famous Mark Twain quip, the film achieved respectability with age.

After languishing in obscurity for years, the film acquired a new life in 1974 when the copyright lapsed. Available to TV stations for free, the film began to be shown on local channels every December. The repeated showings, often on Christmas Eve, gradually built an audience hungry for sentimental holiday fare.

The movie’s unlikely popularity coming decades after its release has always been a mystery to me, like the meaning of life or the enduring popularity of the Kardashians. Christmas movies should be uplifting, bright and, well, full of merriment. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” however, is as dark as the darkest film noir. If Eugene O’Neill, the playwright known for tragedies, wrote a Christmas movie, this would be it.

Consider main character George Bailey, played by actor Jimmy Stewart. George works hard and does all the right things. But his life is far from wonderful, notwithstanding the movie’s title. He loses hearing in one ear while saving his friend from drowning, he forgoes his dreams of travel and college to run his father’s business, and his bank lends money to impecunious borrowers instead of making profits.

Despite his hard work and goodness, life hands George a losing lottery ticket. One black Christmas Eve night, faced with financial ruin, he examines his life and finds only quashed dreams and personal failure. Depressed, he decides to end it all by jumping from a bridge into the icy waters below, but is saved by the divine intervention of Clarence, an angel-in-training.

If George’s story sounds familiar it’s because it updates the Biblical story of Job, minus the guardian angel. Like George, Job’s life was beset by trials and tribulations not of his own making. And like the story of Job, the message of the film is that human happiness is fragile and easily broken. Hardly a Christmas-y message.

But what about the happy ending? On Christmas Day (spoiler alert!) the story takes a U-turn. Clarence uses his angelic powers to convince George his life is not so bad after all. The community forks over the money to save George’s bank, and Clarence gets the wings he was vying for. The town rejoices.

But the joy comes too little, too late. It can’t dispel the film’s essential bleakness, which is just too heavy to shrug off. Can we really forget George’s attempted suicide, financial failure and unrealized dreams just because he finds ZuZu’s petals in his pocket? Even by Hollywood standards, the mismatch between the feel-good ending and the darkness that precedes it is jarring. It’s like slapping a smiley-face sticker on an obituary.

Let’s face it: Regardless of the faux happy ending, the film is a downer. It might as well come with a trigger warning. Of course, pointing out the dark side of this beloved movie will surely provoke cries of Scrooge! But I’m not. Really. I just prefer movies a tad more upbeat than the angst served up by this film.

During the Christmas season give me the easy, emotional warmth delivered by films such as “A Christmas Carol,” or “Love Actually.” Give me the tidy, formulaic cheer offered by the Hallmark channel or Netflix. Give me movies where true love blossoms during the holidays, families are reunited, and lost pets are found — all just in time for Christmas dinner. I’ll even take “Bad Santa” where crude, utterly reprehensible behavior somehow saves a kid from bullying. Now that’s redemption I can live with.

Eric Heavner (ericheavner@verizon.net) works for a Baltimore real estate developer and is a part-time musician.

Editor’s note: The annual screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at The Senator Theatre in Baltimore (5904 York Road), to benefit GEDCO CARES Food Pantry, is set for Dec. 22 and 23 at 10 a.m. Admission is free, though at least $5 worth of non-perishable food donations is suggested.

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