For me, one of the highlights of the holiday season, in addition to the bright colored lights everywhere, heavily decorated domesticated fir trees, live performances of The Messiah and the Nutcracker, and not a lot but some of the season’s ubiquitous holiday carols, are a couple movies from the post-World War II era when American culture seemed more enchanted, if more corny, than today.
My enterprising mother, a saint if ever there was one, sought to make the holidays a memorable treasure for us three boys (dad was always too grumpy), nailing up a cardboard fireplace to the living room wall for Santa to come down, pretending it was Santa’s handwriting and not hers on all the gifts under the tree (I was suspicious but, heck, what’s the “willful suspension of disbelief” all about anyway?), and tons more.
As I grew up and moved away, I adopted a couple more favorite traditions I’d never encountered in my youth, and one of them was the Frank Capra film from 1946, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (another being Bing Crosby’s really hokey “White Christmas.” I love it).
For as much as “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a famous holiday tradition in America, I never once saw it until sometime in the 1970s. I came to learn the reason for its absence from my youth was the fact that the FBI declared it to be Communist propaganda!
Its popularity the last few years, by the way, seems to be waning again because it doesn’t appeal to religious fundamentalists, on the one hand, or nihilist haters on the other. We’re supposedly more “grown up” with contemporary Postmodern tastes these days to embrace the values on display in that film.
But when its latest surge in popularity peaked in the 1970s when I first saw it, nobody thought of it as subversive in the least. It was sentimental and sweet and as Frank Capra himself was quoted saying, its purpose was to enhance the viewer’s belief in him or herself and to buck a growing atheistic trend in the culture.
The recent re-waning of its popularity comes in a culture far more cynical today. But given the pandemic quarantines and social displacements of 2020, such sweet things may be coming back into vogue again.
That trend was certainly on display last Saturday in an amazing streaming online of a live reading of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” play by a star-studded array of famous actors reading parts from their homes in a benefit performance for the Ed Asner House in L.A. For a nominal fee, supporters of the charity and also hopeless romantics like me were entertained with what turned into an almost five-hour but totally engaging affair.
Playing the lead was Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson as George Bailey, a seemingly totally unlikely choice except with a stretch of the imagination, one could see a resemblance to the guy who filled that role in the 1946 movie, Jimmy Stewart.
And Davidson certainly had the voice inflections of the part in the dramatic reading, confessing during an interview afterwards that he’d grown up seeing that film, his dad’s favorite, he said, every holiday season.
Davidson’s dad had been a firefighter who responded to the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center and died in the rescue effort as did hundreds of first responders when Pete was only seven.
Knowing this provided some special import to his brilliant handling of the role from his surviving mom’s basement in Staten Island, where he lives right now.
With a big boost from movie maker Judd Apatow, Davidson has grown beyond a limited teen bad boy persona he displayed on SNL, to what can honestly now be called a promising career in film. Seeing a potential there, Apatow guided Pete through a production of “The King of Staten Island,” a pic about Davidson, himself, and after his stellar role as George Bailey Saturday, Pete responded to the praise with mature and humble thanks.
Now Davidson is in the process of having all the scores of tattoos he’d had burned into his torso in recent years all removed. He is a story of the holidays, himself.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]