“It’s a Wonderful Life” at Cable Car Cinema: Christmas Classic or Overrated Oldie?

Photo courtesy of Cable Car Cinema

PROVIDENCE, RI — Bells jingle on the door as patrons walk in, and the scent of hot butter wafts over from a giant vat of popcorn at the center of the cafe. Artsy-looking twenty-somethings litter the seating area opposite the counter, each with a coffee, tea, or beer and mooching wi-fi to their heart’s content.

The Cable Car Cinema & Cafe also houses a tiny movie theater being prepped for its next showing: an indie docu-drama about the violent impact the Chinese economic boom has had on the country’s citizens. In a few weeks’ time, the microcinema will screen It’s a Wonderful Life just in time for the holidays. Couples can cozy up in their comfy love seat couches or sit up front in traditional theater seating.

“Cable Car,” as the locals call it, offers the perfect setting to spark a spirited discussion on It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that many regard as a timeless Christmas classic, myself included.

“Easily one of the worst Christmas movies of all time,” says barrista-projectionist Johnny Ray. “I don’t even know why we’re showing it,” he says, shaking his head sadly.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra, follows the life of George Bailey, a small town man about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve to save his family and business from financial ruin. Several angels observe George’s entire life from heaven before one goes down to show George how terrible the world would be without him.

“It’s like one of those old, scratchy sweaters your mom makes you wear every year around Christmas time,” Johnny says. “It’s just so overdone. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Whether or not It’s a Wonderful Life jeopardizes Johnny’s comfort, it’s impossible to refute its prominence during the American holiday season. The film gets primetime exposure on NBC every Christmas season, this year playing on Christmas Eve at 8:00 p.m. It was even supposed to play on Saturday, December 14, until it was bumped off to make room for the reshowing of the Sound of Music Live!

For those like Anthony Esolen, professor of English at Providence College, a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life is a mandatory Christmas tradition for the whole family. His house was one of 5.6 million that tuned in to NBC to watch last year.

“A great movie!” he said. “Its message is not simply that every life is important, but that what makes any life important is almost always what the world considers silly, small-town, no-account, trivial – a waste.”

Despite receiving 5 Oscar nominations and being recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best films ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life had minimal success at the box office when it debuted in 1946.

Why didn’t early audiences – along with modern viewers like Johnny Ray – adore the story of George Bailey’s redemption?

“Maybe it’s because the fake snow they used was partially made of asbestos,” said the burly and bearded Blake Burgeron, a high school English teacher from Colorado.

“It’s just so long and kind of slow,” said Michael Girard, a local student studying physical therapy. “It’s pretty boring, but I guess it has a good message.”

Anthony Esolen, however, continuously champions the film: “Maybe the first audiences of the movie didn’t like it because it showed them the starkness of the choice: if you do the right thing, if you remain loyal to your family and your place, you will NOT be following the American Dream.”

Dr. Esolen said he firmly believes that the timeless value of It’s a Wonderful Life comes from its critique of self-serving ambition. “The movie flies in the face of much that modern Americans value: serving yourself and your ‘dreams’ above all others.”

Ethan Gilsdorf, a film critic for the Boston Globe, said, “It’s a terrific and perfect Christmas movie in my mind, but obviously sentimental and old fashioned.”

It’s a Wonderful Life is nearly 70 years old and despite being colorized in the ‘80s, it is more often than not shown in black and white. To many newcomers who see It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time, the dated special effects and black-and-white picture are more alienating than charming.

“My girlfriend and I watched the first scene,” said middle school teacher Sean Phillips, “It’s a bunch of light up paper galaxies talking, and I just thought to myself, ‘Oh god.’ I think my girlfriend actually laughed out loud.”

Back at Cable Car, Johnny Ray prefers Christmas movies that are more modern and edgy: “I’d rather watch something else, where Christmas is just the backdrop. Like Rules of Attraction, Die Hard, or even Black Christmas.

Whether or not Johnny approves, Cable Car Cinema & Cafe will be offering daily screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life starting on December 20 and leading up to Christmas Day. So if you live in the Providence area and are a fan, be sure to stop by for a viewing.