Everyone has this fear as they get older that somehow, new junk is going to supplant the classics in status. Anyone over the age of 40 and maybe even 35 knows what I’m talking about. We’ve all had that queasy moment when we’ve come across internet comments raving that Batman Begins is ten times the movie that 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Godfather were.
As much of a problem as this can be, it’s the least of any aging person’s worries. Why? Because sometimes it’s not “new junk” that supplants the classics, but old junk as well.
Case in point: It’s a Wonderful Life vs The Best Years of Our Lives. For decades, The Best Years of Our Lives was a beloved holiday movie classic and considered one of the best movies of its era. It wasn’t just because it was such a wonderfully directed and acted movie. It was also because it was a very groundbreaking film. You see, decades before Hollywood “dared” to get an actual deaf person to star in a movie (Marlee Matlin of Children of a Lesser God), The Best Years of Our Lives did something even more daring. It chose Harold Russell to play one of the lead characters.
Besides being a complete and total amateur, Russell was also a real life amputee, stemming from an injury he incurred in his service in WWII. It was his struggle as a disabled vet that became one of the key storylines of the film. The Best Years of Our Lives didn’t tip toe around his disability, either, by doing that cheap 1940s gimmick of pinning his sleeves at the stump. Not only were his bare arms amply displayed, there were scenes in which he demonstrated how he used his prosthetics. This doesn’t seem like much today in our desensitized times, but it was big deal in 1946. As one IMDB reviewer put it, when the movie was first released, an adult friend was forbidden by her mother to see it.
While The Best Years of Our Lives was remembered for the next thirty years as a classic, It’s a Wonderful Life remained an embarrassing footnote of 1946, and not just because it was a commercial and critical bomb. It later became a subject of ridicule and derision when it was played morning, noon and night on local TV stations during the holiday season throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The reason? It had accidentally become public domain when the original rights holder, Republic Pictures, failed to renew its copyright in 1974. The movie aired so many times in so many markets that in a place like NYC, it wasn’t unusual to have it playing on three separate stations at the exact same time.
On top of being ridiculed, the movie was hardly ever mentioned in any retrospective in Jimmy Stewart’s career. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Glenn Miller Story, maybe, but not It’s a Wonderful Life.
So how was it that over time, it was It’s a Wonderful Life that became seen as the quintessential classic holiday movie while the far superior The Best Years of Our Lives fell into obscurity?
It all started when Jimmy Stewart began making the rounds on the late night talk circuit in the 1980s and 90s. Elderly at the time, he became America’s Grandpa. He also became a symbol of a more innocent, genteel time embodied by the Norman Rockwell paintings that used to grace the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. Over time, an image developed around Stewart that couldn’t have been more different from his actual career. Even though he did star in a number of family-friendly and wholesome films, the reality is that he had also spent much of his career either starring in extremely dark, envelope-pushing movies or playing cynical, curmudgeonly characters.
Remember, this was the guy who played a gay murderer in Rope, a sleazy small town lawyer in the equally sleazy Anatomy of a Murder and the creepy guy in Vertigo who forces his new girlfriend to dress like his old flame so he can sleep with her. He also played a cranky photographer in Rear Window and starred in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a cynical western that questioned the mythology of the Old West.
Stewart was anything but Saturday Evening Post throughout his career. But as he kept reciting poetry about his dog Beau on Johnny Carson in his signature stutter, the public began associating him more with his Frank Capra films than stuff like Vertigo or Rope, sort of in the same way kids of the 1960s and 1970s who grew up watching My Three Sons and The Absent Minded Professor had no idea that Fred MacMurray started out playing heels and creeps in film noirs.
One thing led to another and before anyone knew it, it was decided that Stewart should be remembered for his more wholesome films. What better way to do that than to declare that the best film of his career was, you guessed it–It’s a Wonderful Life.
When Stewart died, it was a done deal. As far as Americans were concerned, that movie was his magnum opus. NBC decided to capitalize on this newfound love for the movie by running it annually every Thanksgiving with a lot of hoopla and fanfare. A new generation, who had no idea that this movie had been maligned and ignored for decades and rejected by moviegoers and critics alike, were taught to embrace it as the quintessential holiday classic, as well as see it as Stewart’s most famous and greatest movie role ever.
Meanwhile, many classic feel good holiday films from the 1940s fell by the wayside. White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, Meet Me in St. Louis all became relegated to the dust bin of film history. Unfortunately, out of all of these films, no film suffered a worse fate than The Best Years of Our Lives, which can no longer enjoy the status and recognition that it truly deserves, thanks to the old junk that is It’s a Wonderful Life.