Critic's corner: Jimmy Stewart -- It's a wonderful legacy

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I miss the days when "It's a Wonderful Life" was not quite so special.

Back when it had slipped into the public domain, which meant you could find it on almost any channel any time of the day or night.

Untangling the Christmas tree lights? It was there. Hunting for the scissors and tape -- again? It was there. Fanning out the homemade cookies and carrots on a special plate for Santa and the reindeer? Yep, there again.

Repeated viewings? No more.

The broadcast rights belong to NBC, which will air the 1946 film on Dec. 15 from 8 to 11 p.m. The telecast will be described for the visually impaired by the former President Bush.

Sure, many of us own the videotape or DVD or both, but it's not the same as stumbling across the movie while flipping channels. It was like unwrapping a box whose contents you had guessed or peeked at; you knew what was inside, but that didn't diminish the delight.

Enter early, and you might have seen Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed doing the Charleston right into the pool hidden under the dance floor at the high school.

Come in a little later, and it might have been Uncle Billy trying to make a bank deposit without the necessary $8,000 or George Bailey sliding into the depths of despair as Clarence the angel informs him, "You're nobody. You have no identity." Later still, it might be George racing through the snow, shouting, "Merry Christmas, movie house ... Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!"

"It's a Wonderful Life" is probably my favorite movie of all time. That's not the critic talking, that's the person who is a sucker for Christmas movies, who revels in the bleak passages (without the darkness, the light would be meaningless) and invariably tears up at the end.

The Frank Capra movie is not for -- or about -- the Harry Baileys or Sam Wainwrights of the world. It's for the George and Mary Baileys, the men and women who sacrifice money or yearnings or ambitions for the good of their family and community.

Early in the movie, George and Harry Bailey's father broaches the topic of George returning to the Building and Loan after he's finished his already delayed college education. "I couldn't face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office," he says, even as he realizes he's hurt his father's feelings and apologizes.

"It's this business of ... spending all your life trying to figure out how to save 3 cents on a length of pipe. I'd go crazy. I want to do something big and something important."

In the end, of course, after sacrificing the hearing in his left ear, his college education, his wanderlust, his honeymoon, his ability to serve in World War II, his chance at getting rich and almost his hard-earned reputation, George realizes he did do something big and important.

He kept Bedford Falls from turning into Pottersville. He saved and nurtured lives. He had a wonderful life and helped others do the same.

With assistance from an angel named Clarence, George eventually realizes no man is a failure who has friends. And he has an entire community of friends, except for Mr. Potter, a rotter to the end.

Those endless airings were a blessing in many ways. Just as "The Christmas Story" became a modern favorite by virtue of round-the-clock airings, the slide into the public domain saved "It's a Wonderful Life" from being lost in the holiday shuffle.

"So many of the young people who come into the museum, that film is their only link to Mr. Stewart or their initial link," says Timothy F. Harley, executive director of the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pa.

The museum is putting together a trip to the one-man show "This Wonderful Life" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and Harley says, "It certainly is interesting that it's 60 years after the debut of the film that a new show is opening in Pittsburgh, and I think it speaks not only to that film, which has become a holiday staple, but ... it speaks to him as an American film icon."

On Friday, Stewart's birthplace celebrated the movie with an annual "It's a Wonderful Life" festival that spilled out onto the nearby streets and Indiana Theater. Festivities continue at the museum through year's end.

"It's a Wonderful Life," named the most inspirational movie of all time by the American Film Institute, will be shown at the museum at 2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 30. As part of a festival of trees, a themed tree will be located in the gallery devoted to "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Harvey."

In June, as part of a year-long celebration of Stewart's birth in 1908, Karolyn Grimes is scheduled to visit. She played flaxen-haired Zuzu, the Bailey girl who famously ended up in bed on Christmas Eve with a fading flower on her night stand. The return of her petals to George Bailey's pocket confirmed he was alive again.

When Stewart died in 1997, many mourners mentioned the Christmas classic in their e-mails to the museum.

"A bell is most certainly ringing tonight," one wrote, while another suggested the actor had "pre-qualified for his wings."

One of the most touching came from a fan who had attempted suicide. "I was unsuccessful because my friends came together to stop me. They tried to convince me of life's virtues. That didn't do it.

"What reached me were the words that also reached George Bailey: 'No man [or woman] is a failure who has friends.' I decided if that many people cared about me, I should stick around. To this day, I feel that Jimmy Stewart saved my life. Not only that, he showed me how to live and be happy."

Not bad for an old black-and-white movie.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632. First Published November 18, 2007 5:00 AM


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