And, 68 years later to the day, I got to see the holiday classic on the big screen for the first time—just the way it would’ve looked for its original audiences.
This past weekend, the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York screened a crisp 35mm archival print of Capra’s masterpiece, on loan from the Library of Congress. The 1920s Moorish-style movie palace took on a festive glow for the occasion. A Christmas tree twinkled in in the lobby, a starry pattern of red and green illuminated the ceiling, and an a cappella ensemble crooned by the concession stand.
The joy of Christmas melded with joy of experiencing film on film—a pleasure so increasingly rare that I traveled 2-and-a-half hours for it! Each year the Capitol shows It’s a Wonderful Life on its carbon arc projector, one of only about 30 still in continuous use in the U.S.
Up until the 1960s, movie theaters showed films on this kind of projector, its light emitted from carbon electrodes. This means that your favorite classic Hollywood movies were originally screened by the clear intensity of carbon arc light. That’s the way they were made to be seen.
Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, and Bob Hodge, the Capitol’s projectionist, let me invade the projection booth.
As Hodge explained, if he projected the film the way it arrives from the Library of Congress, it would run upside-down and backwards.
Even in the heyday of celluloid, projectionists would run films on the theater’s own set of reels, kept in pristine condition, instead of the rougher set on which the film arrived.
It took all my willpower not to muster my best Jimmy Stewart impression and exclaim, “Merry Christmas, you old carbon arc projector!”
After the film, I got to see a very different kind of projection booth: the digital works at the Capitol’s art house venture, Cinema Capitol, which opened in late November. Jack Theakston, as well as Capitol manager Art Pierce, and Capitol board member Doug Swarthout kindly gave me a tour of the new theater.
After seeing it as essentially an empty office space in October, I was amazed by how welcoming and hip Cinema Capitol looks now. In the 52-seat theater, spectators can appreciate intriguing current releases along with digital restorations of classics. While I was there, I got to peer at Bing Crosby through the projection window as the holiday re-release of White Christmas played for a small but enthusiastic audience (who applauded at the film’s conclusion).
Needless to say, it warms my heart to see 35mm coexisting with digital right next door. From sconces made of old film reels to a retired carbon-arc projector in the lobby, the theater celebrates the old along with the new. Cinema Capitol proves that 21st century technology doesn’t have to replace the beautiful cinematic traditions of the 20th. Rather, they complement each other.
Come to think of it, the Capitol and the staff of movie fanatics who keep it alive remind me quite a lot of the Bailey Building and Loan and its staff of lovable characters. Both triumphed against the odds to preserve something meaningful and attracted a loyal crowd of admirers in the process.
And that, friends, is the true meaning of Christmas. Well, on this blog, at least.
2014 made me change my tune about a bunch of things, from Gone with the Wind to Dana Andrews. The Ghost of Celluloid Past must’ve been chuckling at my reactions all year.
So I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life with a very definite goal in mind. I was hoping to gain some perspective on a Christmas movie that I don’t love, to put it mildly.
This is a guilty secret that only those closest to me have shared (and, if I’m honest, gasped at in disgust).
Can I blame my former lack of fondness for the film on my generation? Try though I might to deny my millennial-ness, I’ve had a tough time relating to It’s a Wonderful Life since childhood.
The selfless values of America’s “greatest generation” struck me (and many people my age, I assume) as noble but remote, like the Medieval code of chivalry. Then again, viewers in 1946 weren’t crazy about It’s a Wonderful Life either. It turned out to be a box office disappointment for Capra.
While I’d never refute the sheer filmmaking genius behind Capra’s ode to the American little guy, the fact that he didn’t just use Western Union to send his message irritated me. I hate myself a little bit for writing this, yet a deep, cynical part of me had instinctively rejected It’s a Wonderful Life as propaganda. The most beautiful, harmless propaganda in the world, yes, but propaganda nonetheless.
On a big screen, however, the film’s much-reproached corniness melted away like snowflakes on my tongue. The introspective gravity of those ethereal opening shots, as the voices of characters we haven’t met rise in prayer for a man in trouble, grabbed me and never let go.
The story and, above all, the personalities enfolded me. I couldn’t distance myself from the movie like I could in the security of my house; there was no room to chew on ideological concerns. As never before, It’s a Wonderful Life genuinely entertained me for over 2 hours.
The movie’s almost continual funniness also took me by surprise. From my dozen or so previous viewings, I’d remembered isolated bits of comic relief in what is, let’s face it, a pretty damn dark Christmas classic. On this viewing, Capra’s warm sense of humor sustained me for the duration and seemed to weave more intricately into the moments of pathos.
In fact, one of the biggest laughs arrived at the lowest point of George’s trajectory, in the barren ruin of his home, when Clarence bites Bert’s hand as a diversion. The comedy of It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t neutralize the disturbing spectre of Pottersville, as I’d thought it was supposed to. It actively affirms that the same higher power striving to make life worth living also has a sense of humor.
I joined an audience comprising a wide range of ages in chuckling heartily every few minutes thanks to the film’s masterful pace. As Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.”
Indeed, if you want to know how amusing a movie is—or how contagious laughter can be—watch it in a darkened theater with a hundred or so strangers.
For me, the greatest revelation was how much I cared about every character in It’s a Wonderful Life (Potter and his lackeys excepted). On a small screen, Jimmy Stewart dominates the movie so totally that his despair triggers a kind of emotional claustrophobia. Besides, not everyone can be a George Bailey—and even he didn’t want to be one. Does a life only have value to the extent that it serves other lives?
In an interview, Capra said that It’s a Wonderful Life expressed “the importance of the individual,” an unusual statement about a film that I’d considered a paean to community. As I rediscovered the film a few days ago, however, Capra’s tender attention to each and every person in Bedford Falls came across with poignant conviction. I know my limitations and I’ll never be a George Bailey. But I can aspire to be a Bert or a Sam Wainwright or an Annie. And those are all pretty wonderful things to be, I realized.
Finally, I noticed many aspects of It’s a Wonderful Life that I’d never picked up on before. As it sprawled across the Capitol’s 20-by-40-foot screen, it gave me more “cinephiliac moments” than I could possibly recount in a single post. Like how you can see the mist of Mary and George’s breath as they sing “Buffalo Gals.”
Like the dead, hollow eyes of Ernie the cabdriver, once full of such eagerness and humor, as he drives to 320 Sycamore.
Like the glistening, ghostly threads of cobwebs that tremble in the night air when George finds his house empty and abandoned.
Like the way Zuzu doesn’t know the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne,” prompting George to help her a little.
Tiny stitches in an intricate piece of embroidery, innumerable details—some intended, some improvised, some providential—added up to something I could begin to enjoy. Will it ever be a favorite of mine? Probably not. But my appreciation, like the Grinch’s heart, grew a few sizes.
For those of you who cherish It’s a Wonderful Life, believe me, you need to see it as it was meant to be seen. Treat yourself. Life is short. For those of you who don’t love it, you need to see it on a big screen even more. And, if you can, try to see it at the Capitol.
Merry Christmas to all you cinephiles!