It’s A Wonderful Life Night

 

By a show of hands, how many of you have never seen It’s A Wonderful Life? It’s okay, don’t be shy. Until I was married I hadn’t seen it either, and I was no stranger to old movies. I am a movie nerd, I used to program my family VCR to record movies in the middle of the night. I grew up with Gone With The Wind, Mommy Dearest, and Shenandoah playing in the background. But somehow I managed to miss It’s A Wonderful Life, or tuned it out when it was on.

That changed a week or so before Christmas in 1998. Another couple who’d never seen it decided to join us in watching it for the first time, and I suspect I was more interested in the take-out pizza and coffee with Schnapps than the movie. I was tasked with driving to Video City to make the rental, but when I got there the three copies they had were all checked out. I looked around for a different movie but noticed they had some VHS copies for sale that even came with a little bell Christmas tree ornament. If we’d had cell phones back in those days, my wife probably would have told me not to buy it.

It’s supposed to be a classic, I reasoned, and figured it would fit nicely next to my VHS copies of Casablanca and Schindler’s List.

I made my way home to the two-bedroom apartment and the four of us settled in to watch the old movie with varying degrees of interest. Two hours later, four twenty-somethings were smiling, moved (maybe to tears), and experiencing what can only be understood by those who’ve seen it.

It’s A Wonderful Life is more than a classic film; it’s a perfect film, and I don’t say that lightly. Nor am I alone. For a more detailed explanation about its cinematic superiority, check out the Critical Drinker’s review — after you’ve watched it, that is, because spoilers abound. But that’s not what this post is about.

A year after that first viewing, my wife and I decided to watch it again, maybe with the same couple, maybe with others, I don’t remember exactly. We loved it all over again and it became a tradition. We started calling it It’s A Wonderful Life Night, a Guerra tradition that’s continued for 22 years. Every year in mid-December we invite a few families over, provide two big pots of soup (my wife makes great soup) and fresh bread. Guests are welcome to bring a sugary snack if they want to, but it’s not requisite.

We start the party at 5:30, start the movie at 6, and let them know they can stay as long as they want, which almost always ends up being well past everyone’s normal bedtime. It’s an event dedicated to simplicity, fellowship, coziness, and fun.

Over the years the faces have changed; so have our houses. There are some old friends who are always invited, others who have moved out-of-state (but we’re working on luring them back), and usually a family or two we’ve been interested in getting to know better.

As the families arrive and get settled in, the quiet atmosphere punctuated by candlelight and Christmas lights becomes loud and lively. The movie starts and everyone gets their bowls of soup, settling down in some area of the house. Often the older kids and a couple of dads engage in conversations and have no interest in the movie, so talk during the whole thing. That’s fine because something interesting always happens, usually right around the time George and Mary fall into the pool: The story captivates them and they turn their attention to the screen. They even put away their phones.

Soon everyone — even those who’ve seen it over 30 times — starts paying attention. It draws them in and the characters play out life’s (sometimes brutal) truths, truths that 22-year-old newlywed Vince understood one way, but that 35-year-old Vince with four kids saw another. Now, 44-year-old Vince with eight kids and no steady income feels George Bailey a little differently than that younger Vince did, with a top-notch health insurance plan and a Christmas bonus in his pocket.

By the time Harry Bailey hoists his glass, everyone is hanging on his words, even the teenagers — just like some of them used to, when their little hands gripped mugs of hot cocoa that were too big for them to finish when they first watched it ten years earlier.

The movie ends, our guests smile, and the conversations that flow from those viewings over the years have been as variable as the times we’ve lived through — sometimes light and silly, sometimes deep and serious (like this year), but always valuable.

It’s A Wonderful Life reminds us that there is no shame in feeling the weight of the world on our shoulders, or even in calling out to God for a Christmas miracle when all other human options have failed.

When I think back on the friends who’ve shared that night with us, I’m reminded of the important lessons of the film: the connections we make with people are what matter most, and the part we play in other’s lives, even if they’ve floated away from us, will count for something in the end.


Fun fact: Due to its initial lackluster reception, It’s A Wonderful Life became public domain and the current licensing rights are complex. As a result, you can watch it several places for free.

Millennial Movie Monday is a fun, YouTube reaction series. Her reaction to It’s A Wonderful Life is as it should be.

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  1. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    This is my favorite movie and I watch it every year at least once, if not more than once.  But I cannot find it anywhere on the Dish Networks so far.  We didn’t have Charlie Brown either – PBS had the Christmas one on and of course had to thank “Apple” in its credits, the new owners and controllers of that Series. Nothing on the regular networks. The Alistair Sim Scrooge and the Muppets Christmas Carol are also favorites.

    There are so many great holiday movies that could be on, but not, in fact AMC has been playing the same movie for two weeks – Christmas Vacation – now they are playing the same again – I think they just hit a button and go home. But there’s plenty of horror movies on.  I plan to call Dish after the holidays and raise (candy) cane!!!!

    • #1
  2. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Your gathering sounds wonderful.

    Since you asked, I have never seen the movie.

    • #2
  3. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    Vince Guerra: By a show of hands, how many of you have never seen It’s A Wonderful Life? It’s okay, don’t be shy.

    Raises hand. I’ve seen clips but never the whole movie. I should remedy that this year.

    • #3
  4. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra: By a show of hands, how many of you have never seen It’s A Wonderful Life? It’s okay, don’t be shy.

    Raises hand. I’ve seen clips but never the whole movie. I should remedy that this year.

    No shame, but you won’t be sorry you did. You too @hoyacon

    • #4
  5. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Thought of as a Christmas movie, but I think of it as simply a great movie. Truly little to no fat; just about every scene hits all the marks for writing, acting, directing, and whatever else it takes to make a movie scene.

    • #5
  6. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Vince Guerra: Now, 44-year-old Vince with eight kids and no steady income feels George Bailey a little differently than that younger Vince did, with a top-notch health insurance plan and a Christmas bonus in his pocket.

    I hear you on that. The wife was confirming how much life insurance I have the other day. For now I am still probably worth more alive than dead . . . but it is getting close.

    • #6
  7. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    I cannot find it anywhere on the Dish Networks so far

    It’s on Amazon Prime Video, Vimeo, YouTube etc…

    See the link at bottom. 

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Interestingly, when it was first released, it was not marketed as a Christmas movie. It became a Christmas classic after it entered the public domain, as stations began running it around Christmas time because it was cheap and filled up time so staff could take time off for Christmas.

    • #8
  9. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Interestingly, when it was first released, it was not marketed as a Christmas movie. It became a Christmas classic after it entered the public domain, as stations began running it around Christmas time because it was cheap and filled up time so staff could take time off for Christmas.

    Yeah, it is not really about Christmas but takes place at Christmas time . . . like Die Hard.

    • #9
  10. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy) Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy)
    @GumbyMark

    Guess I finally need to watch it.

    • #10
  11. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Your gathering sounds wonderful.

    Since you asked, I have never seen the movie.

    You must see it.  Don’t miss this.  I am so jealous of you being able to see it for the first time.  Merry Christmas my friend.

    • #11
  12. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra: By a show of hands, how many of you have never seen It’s A Wonderful Life? It’s okay, don’t be shy.

    Raises hand. I’ve seen clips but never the whole movie. I should remedy that this year.

    I am so happy for you.

    • #12
  13. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    Vince,

    I have not seen it, which is unusual because I really like old movies.  TCM is my favorite channel.  People keep talking about what a great movie it is, but I haven’t sat down to see it.  Maybe because I am a curmudgeon-in-training, I won’t see it just to be contrary.

    Great tradition that you guys have.  Thanks for writing about it.

    Now, please excuse me as I have to yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

    Tim

    • #13
  14. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    Vince,

    I have not seen it, which is unusual because I really like old movies. TCM is my favorite channel. People keep talking about what a great movie it is, but I haven’t sat down to see it. Maybe because I am a curmudgeon-in-training, I won’t see it just to be contrary.

    Great tradition that you guys have. Thanks for writing about it.

    Now, please excuse me as I have to yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

    Tim

    I refuse to make tacos on Tuesday for the same reason. Any other day of the week, even several times a week, but not Tuesday. 

    • #14
  15. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    I’ve seen it dozens of times. In fact, I watched it this past weekend. It’s an extremely good movie, but . . . it’s not even my favorite Jimmy Stewart movie. It’s available on Amazon Prime.

    Anything with Jimmy Stewart in it is extremely good. Harvey is my favorite Jimmy Stewart movie. Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, Liberty Valance, and Philadelphia Story are all better.

    It’s not my favorite Christmas movie either. (A Christmas Story is my favorite.) 

    • #15
  16. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    “Isn’t it wonderful?  I’m going to jail!” Is my favorite line in that movie.  Jimmy Stewart said it so perfectly.  

    • #16
  17. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    I suppose that being a pessimist can be the same as a curmudgeon but I have always felt that the movie was maudlin and manipulative. I am OK with the basic message but it is easier for me to indentify with Scrooge in Dickens’ classic. That for me is the perfect Christmas story.

    • #17
  18. colleenb Member
    colleenb
    @colleenb

    I am generally not a fan of “It’s a Wonderful Life” even though I like old movies (anything after 1950 is suspicious in my books) and like Capra. I think I do need to sit down and watch it through again. I heard someone mentioning that it was James Stewart’s first movie after WWII and it reflects that shift from more innocent, pre-WWII to post- WWII for both the country and Stewart as an actor.

    • #18
  19. CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker
    @CarolJoy

    A Reader’s Digest entry recently related the tale of how this movie bombed at the boxoffice.

    It was only in the 1970’s when TV networks were looking for cheap films whose rights were up for sale that Jimmy Stewart’s IAWL came on a venue where it had mass distribution.

    This explains why a  whole generation of us Baby Boomers never saw this movie in the 50’s and 60’s, when every other box office bomb was featured on late night TV.

    • #19
  20. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    I haven’t sat down to watch it in a couple of years, but will this year. Tried to get my wife to watch it a couple years ago, but she fell asleep. Come to think of it, she does that pretty much any time we sit down to watch something that lasts more than 30 minutes.

    • #20
  21. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    colleenb (View Comment):

    I am generally not a fan of “It’s a Wonderful Life” even though I like old movies (anything after 1950 is suspicious in my books) and like Capra. I think I do need to sit down and watch it through again. I heard someone mentioning that it was James Stewart’s first movie after WWII and it reflects that shift from more innocent, pre-WWII to post- WWII for both the country and Stewart as an actor.

    Hmm. Have you seen pre-WWII gangster movies? Not sure those classify as innocent. Jimmy Stewart also played the bad guy (a murderer) in a pre-WWII movie After the Thin Man.

    • #21
  22. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Hang On (View Comment):

    I’ve seen it dozens of times. In fact, I watched it this past weekend. It’s an extremely good movie, but . . . it’s not even my favorite Jimmy Stewart movie. It’s available on Amazon Prime.

    Anything with Jimmy Stewart in it is extremely good. Harvey is my favorite Jimmy Stewart movie. Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, Liberty Valance, and Philadelphia Story are all better.

    It’s not my favorite Christmas movie either. (A Christmas Story is my favorite.)

    It’s not my favorite Stewart movie either for the record, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, You Can’t Take It With You, and Liberty Valance are my top three. But it is a perfect movie, that I will defend to the death. As for Christmas movies, they’re not even comparable. It’s like asking which is a better drink, wine or coffee? They have their own weight class.

    • #22
  23. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    This is my favorite movie and I watch it every year at least once, if not more than once. But I cannot find it anywhere on the Dish Networks so far. We didn’t have Charlie Brown either – PBS had the Christmas one on and of course had to thank “Apple” in its credits, the new owners and controllers of that Series. Nothing on the regular networks. The Alistair Sim Scrooge and the Muppets Christmas Carol are also favorites.

    There are so many great holiday movies that could be on, but not, in fact AMC has been playing the same movie for two weeks – Christmas Vacation – now they are playing the same again – I think they just hit a button and go home. But there’s plenty of horror movies on. I plan to call Dish after the holidays and raise (candy) cane!!!!

    This is one of many reasons to stick with physical media. We have a folder of Christmas CDs and DVDs. Some of the DVD’s are brought out on occasional years (watched While You Were Sleeping and Millions this year, which we don’t always do) but Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard, and It’s a Wonderful Life are watched in our household every year.

    • #23
  24. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    Vince,

    I have not seen it, which is unusual because I really like old movies. TCM is my favorite channel. People keep talking about what a great movie it is, but I haven’t sat down to see it. Maybe because I am a curmudgeon-in-training, I won’t see it just to be contrary.

    Great tradition that you guys have. Thanks for writing about it.

    Now, please excuse me as I have to yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

    Tim

    Truly your loss.

    • #24
  25. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    dajoho (View Comment):

    “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!” Is my favorite line in that movie. Jimmy Stewart said it so perfectly.

    My favorite is “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

    • #25
  26. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):

    dajoho (View Comment):

    “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!” Is my favorite line in that movie. Jimmy Stewart said it so perfectly.

    My favorite is “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

    My buddy and I (he had five boys before having one girl) quote this line all the time.

    • #26
  27. colleenb Member
    colleenb
    @colleenb

    Hang On (View Comment):

    colleenb (View Comment):

    I am generally not a fan of “It’s a Wonderful Life” even though I like old movies (anything after 1950 is suspicious in my books) and like Capra. I think I do need to sit down and watch it through again. I heard someone mentioning that it was James Stewart’s first movie after WWII and it reflects that shift from more innocent, pre-WWII to post- WWII for both the country and Stewart as an actor.

    Hmm. Have you seen pre-WWII gangster movies? Not sure those classify as innocent. Jimmy Stewart also played the bad guy (a murderer) in a pre-WWII movie After the Thin Man.

    Maybe innocent was the wrong word. More worldly? 

    • #27
  28. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Eh, it’s a nice movie and nostalgic, but it’s not all that.  They have the same old tired cliches of rich people having no morals and all the virtue is in the poor.  

    And the moral of the story is kind of blah.  If you don’t save someone’s life as a child, do you still benefit from the lesson?  What if sometime in your life you made an accident and someone died?  I think the lesson is feeble.  

    A man’s life is worthwhile, and need not be made worthwhile because of other people’s perceptions of merit.  Sometimes people aren’t exceptional, they still are worthy.  Sometimes worthy people are not perceived as worthwhile.  

    But if you don’t examine the lesson too deeply, it makes some people feel good.  I guess that’s good enough for a movie, if not a philosophy.

    • #28
  29. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    After reading all of these reviews tonight, I watched it again tonight.  Lots of tears.  Lovely.

    • #29
  30. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Last I remember seeing, NBC shows it once or twice a year, usually in a 3- or even 4-hour time slots, with a LOT of commercials.

    But remember, after seeing that, there’s an excellent follow-up:  (for those who haven’t seen the movie yet, wait until you have!)

     

    • #30