With a primetime slot on NBC last Christmas Eve, millions of Americans were exposed to possibly the best holiday season film of all time, Frank Capra’s 1946 classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Jimmy Stewart won the Oscar for his role which he performed so passionately, so it was reported, at least partly due to the stress he encountered personally as one who fought in World War II that had just concluded.
But despite its four Oscars, including for Best Picture, “It’s A Wonderful Life” ran into stiff resistance especially from right-wing forces that proceeded to launch the infamous McCarthy Era witch hunts and blacklists during the 1950s. Not the least of these was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who recruited rightwing philosopher Ayn Rand, author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” to write a critique of “It’s A Wonderful Life” as pro-communist propaganda.
That’s why widespread appreciation of the movie did not emerge for almost 30 years after its release, when it was revived as the most worthy darling of movie goers everywhere in the wake of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It speaks volumes to this day.
But as commentator Andrew Tobias observes, “Atlas Shrugged” is longer, at 1,168 pages, than the entire final and full report of the January 6 Committee, out this week at 845 pages. Does America still retain the attention span required to stand up to the implications of Trump’s attempted and very nearly successful coup to overthrow democracy? The jury is still out on that one, but the best thing that many of us can do to play our part in the preservation of democracy is to take on some serious intellectual development, much as we learned this week that our U.S. congressman Don Beyer Jr. is doing, not letting his age stand in the way of taking a serious graduate course at the Arlington campus of George Mason University.
In fact, it comes as no coincidence that “It’s A Wonderful Life” was created in the immediate aftermath of World War II to help affirm and restore the core values that animate our nation’s commitment to democracy that so many had sacrificed their lives to protect during that horrible war. Some of the best of our nation’s cultural contributions similarly were issued in that period in response to that war, and the one before it that, combined, cost the lives of hundreds of millions of persons in the most ostensibly civilized areas of the globe. It came even as promoters of McCarthy’s “Red Scare” sought to blunt that influence.
When we ask how the nation can recover from the last six years of Trumpism and the rise of all sorts of racist and xenophobic movements that it has spawned or revived, the film, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” with its theme of the impact of a good and honest life, gives us the best clue.