Celebrate 'It's a Wonderful Life' and other classics with anniversaries this Christmas

This Christmas, we can all use a little extra cheer.

How about a celebration within a celebration? How about two? Or three?

Because this Christmas season, we also celebrate three birthdays.

"It's a Wonderful Life," many people's favorite Christmas movie, turns 75. "A Christmas Carol," the definitive film adaptation with Alastair Sim, turns 70. "Amahl and the Night Visitors," lesser-known now, but for many years a Christmas tradition on TV, is also 70.

Merry Christmas, and happy anniversary!

These three holiday favorites have something in common — other than Christmas. They all owe their success to TV.

Both "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) and "A Christmas Carol" (1951) — originally titled "Scrooge" in Britain — were considered disappointments when they were released theatrically. It was only after repeated TV showings that viewers warmed to them. "Amahl and the Night Visitors," which was an annual Christmas tradition between 1951 and 1966 and has been frequently revived on stage since that time, was commissioned by NBC — the first opera to be created directly for television.

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'It's a Wonderful Life'

You might not guess, given the hoopla surrounding this film's 75th anniversary including a deluxe new Blu- ray edition of the film with lots of bells and whistles, that it was considered a misfire in 1946.

This was director Frank Capra's ("It Happened One Night," "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington") first film after he returned home from World War II, and people were expecting great things. Instead — what was this? Disappointment, despair, attempted suicide, hallucinations — all wrapped up in a big Christmas ribbon.

No thanks, said the public. No thanks, said Hollywood, which gave the film only one Oscar — a technical nod for a new method of creating faux-snow. No one gave much thought to the film for many years.

Which is how a Christmas miracle happened. In 1974, someone forgot to renew the copyright.

Suddenly, small local TV stations had access to an A-list Hollywood Christmas movie, starring Jimmy Stewart, that cost them absolutely nothing. They ran it over and over. When VHS was introduced in 1976, "It's a Wonderful Life" began to appear in dozens of video editions. By the time the lawyers regained control of the property, in 1994, it was too late. "It's a Wonderful Life" had been seen by millions.

But it was not only the constant exposure that turned "It's a Wonderful Life" into a classic. It was also the TV medium itself, argues Jeanine D. Basinger, chair of the Film Studies Department at Wesleyan University, and author of "The 'It's a Wonderful Life' Book" (1986).

The grim story of George Bailey (Stewart) the frustrated small-town idealist who is driven to the brink of suicide until his guardian angel (Henry Travers) shows him a nightmarish vision of what his town would be like without him, might have been too overwhelming for theater audiences. But on the small screen, she said, it feels just right.

"On TV, where you're in your own home at Christmas, surrounded by your family, was a different kind of viewing experience," Basinger told The Record in 2016. "People could absorb the darkness without feeling defeated by it."

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'A Christmas Carol'

This is now widely held to be the definitive version, with Alastair Sim the Scrooge that all others are measured against. But like "It's a Wonderful Life," it took a long time to find its audience. And for the same reason. Too grim.

In 1951, it was originally slated to open at Radio City Music Hall. Then the managers got a look at it, and abruptly cancelled the booking. It played instead at The Guild, a small newsreel theater around the corner.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) faces the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the 1951 production of "A Christmas Carol."
Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) faces the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the 1951 production of "A Christmas Carol."

The problem? It was "spooky and somber," as the New York Times put it. Not the jolly family entertainment people were expecting. Not the "Christmas Carol" that American filmgoers (there had been "Christmas Carol" movies as early as 1901) and radio listeners were used to. That it was very much like the "Christmas Carol" that Charles Dickens wrote was beside the point.

As with "It's a Wonderful Life," it was repeated TV showings throughout the 1960s and '70s that endeared the film to holiday viewers.

And Sim, whom the Times declared a "rather mannered, neurotic" Scrooge, now seems an inspired choice.

The difference between Sim, and all other other Scrooges before and since? He's funny.

Scrooge is generally played by the grimmest, grouchiest actor available: Lionel Barrymore, George C. Scott. It's an unlikely role for the whimsical Sim, known up to this time mainly as a comedian. That's why he's so perfect as Scrooge. He alone transforms believably from a dour miser to a lighthearted, impish old man. He simply becomes himself. "I'm not mad," he tells his terrified charwoman, convinced this newly-reformed Scrooge has gone insane. Then — mischievously — he musses his hair into a fright wig.

"Even if I look it," he says. Dickens would have cracked up.

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'Amahl and the Night Visitors'

Alas, you may not know about this charming Christmas tradition unless you're an opera buff — or a TV viewer of a certain age.

Once, it was an annual event on NBC. It speaks to a day, back in the dawn of TV, when television was not entirely a medium of reality shows and celebrity dance-offs, but occasionally a vehicle for cultural improvement. That, anyway, was what NBC had in mind when they commissioned Gian Carlo Menotti, one of the foremost opera composers of the day, to create a one-act Christmas opera specifically for the tube.

"Amahl and the Night Visitors."
"Amahl and the Night Visitors."

The tuneful opera, about a little disabled shepherd boy who gets a visit from the Three Wise Men — en route to see the Christ child — was inspired by Menotti's own memories of his Italian boyhood. There, it was the Three Kings — not Santa Claus — who left Christmas gifts for the children. "I suppose that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle Italian children as well," he said.

The opera was aimed at a popular, not a hoity-toity, audience. And it was a huge success in 1951, seen by 5 million viewers. That first broadcast, it was introduced — charmingly — by Menotti himself. "I do hope you haven't sent all your children to bed," he told viewers. "Because this is actually an opera for children, and I don't want you to be like those awful parents who insist on playing with their children's toys."

“Amahl and the Night Visitors,” presented by The Raclin School of the Arts at Indiana University South Bend’s Northside Hall.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors,” presented by The Raclin School of the Arts at Indiana University South Bend’s Northside Hall.

It was repeated annually for years. But by the late 1960s, it had become too highbrow for prime time. It has been shown only sporadically since.

But opera companies took it up starting in 1952, and there are still plenty of productions every holiday season. And perhaps, after all, TV is not the ideal platform.

"It comes right out of my own childhood," Menotti said during that first broadcast. "And I want you to realize that it's very difficult to recapture my childhood on television, because when I was a child, television had very little to do with my upbringing."

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Christmas movies: 'It's a Wonderful Life' and "A Christmas Carol"