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It’s a Wonderful Life


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As the 65th anniversary of Frank Capra’s classic approaches, Neil McEwan looks into the film’s subtle Conservative underpinning.

Image of It’s a Wonderful Life

Showing @ Filmhouse, Edinburgh until Sat 24 Dec

About fifteen years ago, looking for somewhere convenient and cheap to live, I moved into a flat with two other guys, an enthusiastic law student called Duncan and an American post-grad called Joe. There was the usual period of adjustment as we got to know each other but slowly we bonded and myself and Joe particularly realised we had a shared passion for movies.

We both loved Bergman and Allen, we could quote the Marx Bros and Python word for word, we were huge Powell & Pressburger fans and we knew our noir from our dogma. However there was one film that separated us and ended up leading to a series of heated arguments and that was that slice of yuletide Capra-Corn It’s a Wonderful Life.

For me Christmas wasn’t complete without a trip to Bedford Falls whereas Joe had a visceral dislike for its small town sentiment and its celebration of American individualism which left a worryingly Reaganite taste in his mouth. It was difficult to find fault with his passionate and well argued case, but until that point I’d never bothered contextualising the film, preferring to wipe away a tear over Zuzu’s petals whilst biting into another mince pie.

The discussion had an effect however. How could I, a nice, left leaning chap buy into a vision of society which would please Newt Gingrich? But my resistance could never last and after a couple of years of avoiding it I slipped from my moral perch and reconnected with the film one frosty December afternoon at the Filmhouse.

The truth is you see that when Christmas comes around I don’t worry too much about context. Whatever the semiotic subtleties are in How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Charlie Brown I prefer to ignore them and bathe in their warm sentimental glow. I don’t switch off my critical faculties for the season but I do dial them down, for instance there’s no other time of the year you’d find Shakin’ Stevens on my MP3 player.

I fell in love with It’s a Wonderful Life when I was twelve, a time when I was beginning to lose that initial childish sense of wonder and enter those miserable, awkward teenage years where Christmas was about parties I never got invited to, girls who didn’t notice me and trying to sneak into the house without my parents noticing the eggnog stains on my jumper.

It’s a Wonderful Life provided a thread linking me back to that unaffected sense of innocence and rapture that Christmas used to inculcate in me. My experiences of Christmases since, full of recriminations, regrets and hangovers can still be blown away by an hour and half in the company of Clarence and friends.

Yes it’s a fantasy, and yes it’s one that those likely to vote Republican in the next US elections would find comforting but there’s a conservative underpinning to almost all fantasy and fairy tales. The question is do you let ideology and knowledge get in the way of your enjoyment or – like me – put marshmallows in your ears, pour a large mulled wine and say “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”.