Perspective | Donna Reed’s daughter plays guardian angel for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’


Since 1974, when a copyright lapse despatched it into the general public area, the 1946 Frank Capra drama “It’s a Fantastic Life” has been a Christmas traditional, largely as a result of it supplied free programming for tv stations. Over twenty years, the uplifting story of George Bailey (James Stewart) overcoming suicidal despair with the assistance of a guardian angel turned the quintessential Christmas film, replete with a suitably evil villain — the heartless banker Mr. Potter — and healthful, heartwarming romance, by the use of George’s loyal and resourceful spouse, Mary, performed by Donna Reed.

For the previous 15 years, Mary Owen — Reed’s youngest daughter — has been showing at annual screenings in small impartial theaters which have turn into a cherished seasonal ritual all through the nation. “It’s turn into a convention,” she mentioned just lately from her residence in Iowa Metropolis, 200 miles from the place her mom grew up in Denison, Iowa.

Mary Bailey is the true hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

However that custom confronted an existential menace on a par with George Bailey’s earlier this 12 months, when some small theaters thought they wouldn’t have the ability to play “It’s a Fantastic Life.” Though a number of venues had been in a position to e book the movie as standard, others say they had been advised they wouldn’t have entry to it till January, after an unique run sponsored by Fathom Occasions, Turner Traditional Motion pictures and distributor Paramount Footage.

“The primary time I heard about it I assumed, ‘We have now left Bedford Falls,’” remembers Owen, referring to the fictional city the place Bailey grows up and, by the top of the movie, discovers that he has been a pressure for good all alongside. When she heard that her native nonprofit artwork home, FilmScene, is perhaps barred from exhibiting “It’s a Fantastic Life,” she was incensed.

“I’ve been a part of this momentum of exhibiting the film in small, impartial theaters since 2007, and it’s turn into a convention,” mentioned Owen, 65, who moved to Iowa in 2020 to assist set up her mom’s centennial. Stopping small theaters from exhibiting “It’s a Fantastic Life,” she says, “goes utterly in opposition to the essence of the film” and its beliefs of neighborhood, generosity and self-sacrifice.

It’s tempting to see George Baileys and Mr. Potters at each flip in a narrative that possesses uncanny parallels with “It’s a Fantastic Life,” through which mom-and-pop values handle to beat profit-driven commercialism. However it’s not at all times as clear-cut because it appears. Life, whereas typically fantastic, is simply as more likely to be ambiguous, contradictory and a bit of messy across the edges.

However a shared ethical of each tales is that, for mother and pop to prevail, they’ve to face up for themselves.

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After conversations with Fathom and Paramount, FilmScene finally joined the Fathom occasion, which happened in additional than 1,000 theaters from Dec. 18 by Dec. 21. Some venues adopted go well with, whereas others took to the streets — actually. After initially being advised she couldn’t play “It’s a Fantastic Life,” Ellen Elliott, govt director of Buddies of the Penn, which runs the nonprofit Penn Theatre in Plymouth, Mich., says she found that the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham had acquired an exemption. “I’m like what?!” Elliott recalled just lately, including that when she did some digging she discovered different theaters in Michigan had additionally acquired exemptions. “Anyone who is aware of me is aware of I’m not going to lie down,” Elliott famous. “Fathom does this with movies on a regular basis — we needed to e book ‘Planes, Trains and Cars’ at Thanksgiving, and that had a moratorium, too. However ‘It’s a Fantastic Life’? No. You don’t do this with this movie.”

On Oct. 26, Elliott despatched a textual content and Fb submit encouraging Penn patrons to point out as much as the following day’s screening of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” for a bunch photograph in entrance of the Penn with the message “Please protect our neighborhood custom” on its marquee.

“I wasn’t positive what was going to occur, however individuals got here and so they stored coming,” Elliott recalled, estimating that as many as 1,000 individuals confirmed as much as the rally. “It was identical to the top of ‘It’s a Fantastic Life,’ the place everyone involves George’s home. … We acquired superb footage of the crowds, our NBC affiliate was there. They’d reached out to Paramount twice that day and so they by no means responded. However the subsequent afternoon I acquired an e mail [from the studio] saying, ‘We’re glad to e book this for you.’”

Since October, extra theaters have been given the go-ahead to play “It’s a Fantastic Life,” however not all had been so fortunate. Chris Collier, govt director at Renew Theaters, which manages 4 nonprofit theaters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, says he acquired an e mail from Paramount in August saying the movie can be “out of launch this vacation season as a result of upcoming Fathom occasion.” He merely took no for a solution and moved on. “We’re small and we’re nonetheless short-staffed from the pandemic,” Collier explains. “On one degree, it wasn’t value our workers time to battle a shedding battle. The flip facet is that the period of time we might have invested lobbying Paramount we’re now spending speaking with disenchanted patrons about why we’re not enjoying ‘It’s a Fantastic Life.’”

As for who performs Mr. Potter on this story, nobody is keen to simply accept the function. Fathom Occasions CEO Ray Nutt insists that the corporate made an exception to its standard coverage of demanding exclusivity, permitting greater than 300 impartial theaters to point out “It’s a Fantastic Life” alongside the multiplexes that compose the majority of its community (Fathom is owned by the three largest theater chains in america: AMC, Regal and Cinemark). The Fathom engagement has been a field workplace success: When it ended on Dec. 21, “It’s a Fantastic Life” had earned greater than $1.4 million and a spot within the week’s high performers. And the film had attracted greater than 117,000 filmgoers, a reminder that in lots of cities, suburbs and exurbs, the multiplex is the neighborhood theater.

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Paramount declined to remark straight, sending an announcement by a spokesperson that any theater that desires to play “It’s a Fantastic Life” is ready to play it — an assertion that raises the query of whether or not each time a Hollywood studio tries to dodge a possible PR disaster an angel will get his wings.

For Elliott, in Plymouth, Mich., the saga of “It’s a Fantastic Life” this 12 months demonstrates the fragility of a theatrical ecosystem through which small, impartial theaters are chronically in danger — although they typically demonstrated creativity and nimbleness in hanging on to audiences throughout the pandemic shutdown. “When a multiplex is allowed to take one thing that was born and initially proven in these little theaters and so they’re restricted from it, you’re killing the little man,” she says. “The small-town theater is being nearly handled the identical method as a multiplex, and it’s not the identical. The distributors want to grasp that.”

At a time when nostalgia and fan loyalty are more and more butting up in opposition to the realities of personal possession — of every part from standard HBO packages to Twitter — “It’s a Fantastic Life” occupies a singular place within the collective psyche as one thing owned by everybody, a product of Bedford Falls, not Pottersville. Owen, who just lately launched the movie on the IFC Middle in Manhattan, mentioned this 12 months’s screenings had been imbued with a unique spirit than in years previous.

“There was an exuberance I haven’t felt for a very long time,” she mentioned, including that along with the post-pandemic pleasure of being collectively in a theater, one thing extra aspirational was occurring. “The universality of this film is sort of unbelievable,” Owen mentioned. “I additionally suppose it speaks to this concept of neighborhood that we actually have misplaced. We’ve turn into so divided. Individuals in all probability do acknowledge Pottersville as extra of what we’re residing in now, however they actually do need to deal with one another higher.”

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