Friday, December 24, 2021
Thanks to Berkeley Law Prof Orin Kerr's Twitter feed, I came across this BBC story about how It's a Wonderful Life slipped through a copyright loophole and so became a holiday classic. It is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie. I watched it over and over for years, and now I know why. The BBC story explains that the movie's success is a Chanukah miracle in reverse. It's limited availability for distribution and broadcast was supposed to last 56 years. But due to an oversight, its copyright lapsed after 28 years, and it entered the public domain in 1974.
After that, the movie was fair game. Anyone could show it, and they did. The movie did not even break even when it was initially released (c'mon 1946, what's the matter with you people?). Widely available after 1974, for the first time, It's a Wonderful Life became a real hit. By the way, The Princess Bride followed a similar trajectory, although it made some profits when originally released. No man is a hero to his valet. Perhaps the same is true of at least some great movies, whose appeal escapes the notice of their intended audiences.
Sometimes dismissed as "Capra-corn," a dig at the seemingly sentimental fare produced by director Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life can be loved for its darkness. There is a scene when George Bailey, having been turned away by his unrecognizably grim, dour, hostile mother, races to the picket fence in front of his family home, transformed into a boarding house for the damned. The camera catches George's face as he regards his suddenly unfamiliar surroundings. He is panicked, lost, terrified, uncomprehending, and alone. In short, It's a Wonderful Life unblinkingly captures the very opposite of the Christmas spirit. The film depicts the bleak reality into which our happy lives can so easily devolve. As a result, the film's sentimental ending is well-earned. Both George and the viewers have gone through hell on earth. Even Clarence was tossed out into the unforgiving snow.
Don't worry, Potter, your time is still to come.
And yet, here's the scene that gets me every time. Pure Capra corn comes at 3:35 of this clip. Can't get enough!
Attaboy, Clarence. And to all a good night.