We didn’t believe in angels until we met good old Clarence earning his wings. Every year around the world televisions broadcast, and some cinemas replenish, Living is beautiful!, the movie that invented modern Christmas. The Frank Capra classic starring James Stewart turns 75 and remains unbeatable as the best movie out there to keep hope alive.
It was not an immediate success. Its premiere in 1946 was rather a fiasco and only years later and unexpectedly the film was reunited with the public when it began to be broadcast on television in the seventies until it became, especially in the nineties, a mandatory menu every Christmas. The film was intended to be the Christmas jumpstart in the first year after World War II. However, the story of a good and responsible man who had not moved in the life of his people did not connect with the collective trauma of the postwar period or with the mentality of his veterans.
Filming was not easy either, also due to the aftermath of the war. James Stewart, an actor capable of handling emotions like Fred Astaire’s feet to dance, was stuck and about to leave acting. His passage through the front had changed him. It was Capra who insisted and who convinced him, but the actor spent the shoot with permanent doubts and insecurities about his future in the trade. Nor was there much chemistry with his main co-star, Donna Reed, who played his wife and who, unlike Stewart – who was reunited with the pleasure of acting thanks to the film – was slow to overcome failure.
Living is beautiful! It is about a man in a dead end and ready to commit suicide. In his desperation he runs into an angel, Clarence, whose mission is to save him and, incidentally, earn his own wings. Stewart portrayed the guy caught in his goodness and the rosy, smiling British actor Henry Travers in his clown fallen from the sky.
At 81, Karolyn Grimes is one of the few survivors of the film’s art team. She played the Bailey family’s youngest daughter, Zulu, in charge of uttering the phrase from the most famous shot in the entire film: “Dad, every time a bell rings, an angel has earned wings.” In an interview these days with The Washington Post, Grimes evokes a movie that every year forces him to attend all kinds of tributes, conventions and events.
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This year, in addition, the Festival Living is beautiful!, which has been taking place for two decades in Seneca Falls, New York, has offered a marathon week of talks and anecdote exchange in a town that is considered the source of inspiration for the people of the film. Although this was shot entirely in California, Capra had been in Seneca Falls while preparing the script and called the town of the film Bedford Falls. The remarkable coincidences are already part of local tourism. For the 75th anniversary, the festival, which aims to host a museum about the film, has created a gift box with new memorabilia, including an angel Clarence Christmas tree cutout with his newly earned wings.
There are other movies perfect for Christmas, from Appointment in San Luis a The jewel of the family, but none starts with a conservation between two constellations in the sky that appear as God and Saint Joseph. While blinking, they both talk about a mission on Earth run by the most disastrous angel in the universe. “He has the brain of a mosquito,” Saint Joseph tells God. “Yes, but also the pure faith of a child”, God adds about a character that still in the form of a tiny star is presented with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer under the arm. An angel with the air of a clown whose purity explains the miracle of the film that best represents the Christmas spirit.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.