Classics in Context: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Many moons ago (okay, four years), the Denver Film Center unveiled a new program conceived by then-technical director, Randall Harper: Classics in Context. All the movies featured in the series would be familiar to cineastes, but Harper’s goal was to give the audience something more than the film. He wanted to transport them back to the past, back when the movie first premiered, and let the news of the day swim around in their brains as they digested the images. It was an idea that certainly caught my attention, though it didn’t last much beyond the six months initially planned. Here’s hoping they bring it back when the theater opens in a post-pandemic world. From Boulder WeeklyVol. 24, No. 17, “The context of classics.”

There is a special kind of joy that accompanies revisiting a favorite movie time and time again. We see ourselves in the faces of those on screen, their problems as ours, and no matter how long ago the movie was made, it still speaks to our everyday lives.

But these movies are also products of their own era and should function as reminders that we are not all born into the same box of time and space. That is the aim of the Sie Film Center’s newest monthly series, Classics in Context.

“We can see any of these classic films anytime we choose,” Randall Harper, technical director at Sie, says. “But the world that they reside in is sort of unto itself. The only glimmer of the actual society and environment is inside that film.

“The idea is to take that and try to get a semblance of what it was actually like, what people were going through at the time. … And then watch the film from that perspective.”

The Sie already offers a slew of specialized programming—Women+Film, CineLatino, CinemaQ—but Harper’s Classics in Context will add a repertory of picks that show history isn’t just a string of events but a series of tangents that inform the world around us. As Harper explains, the idea of Classics in Context came while he was looking through a box of 1970s comedy records and found a newspaper stuffed inside one of the albums.

“The headline was FDR’s funeral,” Harper recalls. “April 14, 1945.”

Why the owner chose this particular album to store the paper from the 32nd president’s funeral is a mystery, but it wasn’t one Harper wanted to solve. He was interested in what movies were playing that week.

The Big Sleep was playing,” Harper says. “That was the germ of the idea.”

There is nothing in The Big Sleep (1945) that has anything to do with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s passing, but that would have been on audience’s minds while they watched the movie. Much in the same way that audiences this July retreated into blockbusters with thoughts of the Orlando nightclub shooting or the Nice terrorist attacks weighing on them. We may go to the movies to escape reality, but that doesn’t mean we don’t bring that baggage into the theater.

“There is history outside of the context of the film you are going to go watch,” Harper says. “And I think it’s most pronounced when you are watching complete escapism.”

Take Classics in Context’s kick-off film, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, which opened in New York City on December 21, 1946. It follows the life and times of one of the cinema’s most personable heroes, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), as he fails to shake off the dust of Bedford Falls and gives the town everything he’s got. First by taking over his father’s building and loan business, then by trying to keep the town out of the iron grip of Bedford Falls’ slumlord, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).

When It’s a Wonderful Life was released, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther dinged the movie for the “sentimentality of it—its illusory concept of life.” Sure, It’s A Wonderful Life is sentimental. It’s small-town charm, innocent romance, and moments of cheer—it’s hard not to get choked up when Mrs. Davis (Ellen Corby) asks Bailey for the measly loan of $17.50 during a run on the bank.

Though it has a sentimental hue, it was not made during sentimental times. It’s A Wonderful Life was Capra and Stewart’s first film following their service in World War II—Capra made the seven-part Why We Fight series for the Army and won the Distinguished Service Medal while Stewart flew combat missions for the Army Air Force and received the Distinguished Flying Cross—and Capra wanted it to be a special movie that celebrated ordinary American citizens.

Writing decades later in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra explains: “I wanted to shout to the abandoned grandfathers staring vacantly in nursing homes, to the always-interviewed but seldom-adopted half-breed orphans, to the paupers who refuse to die while medical vultures wait to snatch their hearts and livers, and to those who take cobalt treatments and whistle—I wanted to shout, ‘You are the salt of the earth. And It’s A Wonderful Life is my memorial to you!’”

It was that world, not the yearly Christmas broadcast, in which It’s A Wonderful Life debuted. It’s one that Harper plans to reconstruct by using a collection of preshow elements to place audience members back in the same mindset that audiences would have been when they first saw the film in 1946.

“What I try to do is get the newsreels specifically to what would have been playing that week, as well as any theater ads and a short or a serial that would have, or easily could have, been playing alongside [the film],” Harper says. “The idea is to create the closest approximation for the entire run of a show that you would have, had you been seeing it on that day.”

Harper expects this preshow collection of newsreels, shorts and ads will comprise 20–25 minutes of material.

“I find it interesting, personally, to see the world that this was coming out in, but it can also help me with the appreciation of the film itself,” Harper says. “Some of the reasons that these classic films are still classics are because they still contain enough of the social mores that we respect now.”

But Harper also admits that some of the material he is uncovering is abhorrent by today’s standards of morality, social constructs, and depictions of race.

“There will be certain points in serials that will come along, and we’ll definitely have to give a disclaimer for these,” Harper says. “But I think it’s actually important to see those things as they’re going on. So that when you get to the film, you can understand why it’s still around today but also what was happening at the time. Why certain things were on screen as they are.”

Going forward, Classics in Context will play the second Sunday of every month. Harper already has a tentative schedule of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator for January, followed by the wartime classic Casablanca in February, Howard Hawks’ rapid-fire comedy His Girl Friday in March, Hepburn and Tracy squaring off in Woman of the Year in April, and the ever-enchanting Wizard of Oz for May.

For most, these movies are familiar. But you probably haven’t seen them like this. The preshow of newsreels, ads, and serials that Harper is curating for each program isn’t just an added incentive to watch these movies in a theater; they present the opportunity to travel back in time and watch an old favorite like you are experiencing it for the first time.

You can stream It’s a Wonderful Life on Amazon Prime and