Remaking Christmas: It Happened One Christmas (1977)

Did you know that in 1977 there was a made-for-TV gender flipped remake of It’s a Wonderful Life? And that they decided to give it the title of a different Frank Capra movie, replacing one of the words with Christmas? According to Wikipedia, far from an infallible source, It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t quite as iconic a movie in 1977 as it became soon after when it entered public domain and became somewhat omnipresent on television during the Christmas season, so maybe they felt like a Christmas-themed remake of It Happened One Night. That also may have meant that there was less outrage over the idea of a made-for-TV gender flipped remake of It’s a Wonderful Life back then there would be now. Which makes me envy people in 1977 a bit. Anyway, while it’s far from an improvement on Wonderful Life, or even close to being its equal, It Happened One Christmas is an interesting alternative version, worth checking out if you’re a fan of the material.[1]Both movies are ostensibly based on the short story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren, but It Happened One Christmas is clearly a remake of the earlier film, not a new adaptation of the same … Continue reading

In this reimagining, protagonist George Bailey becomes Mary Bailey (Marlo Thomas), love interest Mary Hatch becomes George Hatch (Wayne Rogers) and ditzy second-class angel Clarence Oddbody becomes Clara Oddbody (Cloris Leachman.) That’s where the gender flipping stops. Having the main character actually be Mary from It’s a Wonderful Life and having her go on an emotional journey like her husband’s would have been interesting, but this movie doesn’t do that. It just makes the George character a woman and calls him Mary. While George Hatch fills the same dramatic role as the original Mary, his personality is changed more than that of the original George. Apparently, screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd feared that an unambitious male lead would be unappealing and adapted the character accordingly. This is a bit unfortunate since Mary’s lack of ambition in Wonderful Life made her more of a foil for George and went some way to explaining why he fought against his attraction to her in spite of her charm and beauty.[2]Couldn’t this remake have called the characters Georgette and Mark? Keeping track of this is very confusing! You could probably write an interesting blog post analyzing the changes made to the story and characterizations and what they say about gender or the filmmakers perceptions thereof.[3]In It’s a Wonderful Life, the dreadful fate that would have awaited the love interest was for her to have been a single glasses wearing librarian. Suffice to say that’s not what would … Continue reading But college made me sick of art analyses that make everything about gender and, to a lesser extent, ethnicity. The only reason I bring gender up so much on this blog is that it’s impossible not to discuss it while writing about how old stories are adapted for modern audiences. I’ll just say that I find it unfortunate that, in this version, Mary’s war hero brother, Harry (here played by Christopher Guest), rich friend Sam Wainwright (Jim Lovelett) and rich enemy Henry F. Potter (Orson Welles) are all men while she’s female. It makes it less obvious that in various ways they each have the life she wishes she could have. Maybe there was no believable way of flipping every character’s gender, given the time period in which the story takes place. And maybe that’s an argument against the whole idea of a gender flipped It’s a Wonderful Life. But I don’t want to make that argument because making the lead a woman is one of the things-maybe the only thing-that keeps this from being the kind of remake that’s just like the original only not as good.

Please forgive the poor picture quality. This was the best I could get.

Let’s get that not as good part out of way as soon as possible. Orson Welles sounds like a great actor to fill Lionel Barrymore’s wheelchair, but, as laughable as this may sound given what an over the top, unnuanced evil rich guy character Potter is, but I feel like he’s too evil in the role. Barrymore brought a sort of sleazy charm and sense of humor to Mr. Potter. Welles is so grim and ruthless that you wonder how the citizens of Bedford Falls can possibly tolerate him.

Marlo Thomas acquits herself well as Mary on the whole, though I was skeptical of her doing this at first. Since It’s a Wonderful Life took a bit of a risk by casting Jimmy Stewart in the somewhat dark lead role, with its mixture of selfishness and selflessness, when he was known for relatively lighter ones at the time, It Happened One Christmas probably felt they should do the same. It doesn’t totally pay off, though it doesn’t blow up in the movie’s face either. Throughout the first couple of acts, in which her every chance of fulfilling her dream of leaving shabby little hometown behind, seeing the world and making her mark on it-or even just going on a vacation-is squashed by her sense of moral obligation to provide decent affordable housing for the poor of Bedford Falls, who would otherwise be living in slums rented to them by Mr. Potter, Thomas comes across as too chipper and generally unphased. Even when she’s angrily denouncing Potter or trying to keep a crowd of terrified people demanding their money under control, she sounds weirdly cheery compared to Stewart, who conveyed his character’s growing frustration and resentment beneath his easygoing surface.

However, once the story reaches the point where it looks like all of Mary’s sacrifices will have been for nothing due to a stupid mistake, leaving her wishing she’d never been born, Thomas’s performance becomes effectively chilling. And after Clara shows her a horrifying alternate reality where her wish is all too true, and she returns to her life with a newfound appreciation, well, she won’t make you forget Stewart’s awesomely hamtastic performance, but her relief and joy are pretty heartwarming on their own terms.[4]If you don’t like ham, maybe you’ll actually prefer it.

Actually, it’s not just Thomas’s performance that gets better halfway through the movie. Everything does. The biggest problem with the first half is that it’s far too fast paced compared to the original movie. The section focused on Mary’s childhood feels particularly rushed. While It Happened One Christmas is only about twenty minutes shorter than It’s a Wonderful Life, you really feel those the absence of those twenty minutes. I wouldn’t say that, for example, taxi driver Ernie Bishop (here played by Archie Hahn) or Italian immigrant Mr. Martini (Cliff Norton) were fully developed characters in the original, but here they’re only introduced right when they’re necessary to the plot. This somewhat cripples the movie emotionally since Mary’s concern for the people of Bedford Falls, mainly the poor, is such a big part of her motivation. It’s hard to properly empathize with her when the script has so little interest in those characters. In particular, the scene in the alternate reality of Pottersville where Mary tries in vain to get her mother (Doris Roberts) to recognize her is awkward since we’ve only seen her mother once, maybe twice, before. This is too bad since Roberts is great in the scene.

The turning point where the movie starts to get more good than bad is the montage of World War II. In It’s a Wonderful Life, this mostly served to show how patriotic all the characters were, even Mr. Potter. Here the focus is more on the protagonist’s personality, and it brings out something latent in the original. Instead of being told through narration from Angel Joseph (voiced in this incarnation by Charles Grodin), this part of the story is mostly told through letters to Mary from her loved ones on the front. Considering how she’s been wishing to leave Bedford Falls and have adventures, it’s easy to imagine these letters making Mary envy the writers, despite the terrible circumstances. And for the first time in the movie, the gender flipping adds a new element to the story. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey was ineligible for service because he was deaf in one ear. This is not the case with George Hatch, and it leads to a frightening separation of him and Mary for some time. (In real time, I mean. In the movie, it just lasts for a montage, but it’s an effective one.) While a wife/mother having to hold down the fort at home while her husband is at war, wondering whether or not he’ll return, is far from original dramatic material, it is new ground for Wonderful Life.

At its best, It Happened One Christmas even improves on the classic original movie. the framing device of the angels briefing Clara on the protagonist’s life is funnier than it was in It’s a Wonderful Life, partly because of the writing and partly because of Grodin’s hilariously annoyed performance as Joseph. The scene where a despondent Mary blows up at her children actually benefits from tighter pacing. Their questions come so fast, compared to those of George Bailey’s more decorous offspring, and are delivered so much more annoyingly, that you can really empathize with her being so harsh to them. That isn’t to say I can’t understand George’s behavior in the equivalent scene in Wonderful Life under the circumstances. I do. But I understand Mary’s in One Christmas even better. And I like what it does with her younger daughter, flower loving Susan (Linda Lee Lyons.) In the original, the scene with her, before that big blowup, basically amounted to a bit of comedic relief/padding. Here her loud complaints that her mother isn’t fixing her damaged bloom add to Mary’s overwhelming feelings of helplessness.

The movie makes good use of color, something It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t have, mainly in the contrast between the flashy, menacing lights of Pottersville and the warm, inviting lights of good old Bedford Falls.

And there’s a nice gloss on the iconic joyful run through the town near the ending. When she wishes a merry Christmas to building and loan, Mary stops running first and gazes with appreciation on the place that she’s resented as a ball and chain through so much of her life. If you believe that It’s a Wonderful Life is so perfect that any attempt at another version is pointless, I can understand that logic. But, as someone who thinks lesser versions are still interesting, I found It Happened One Christmas rewarding in a modest way. If it sounds intriguing to you, try to check it out.

Attagirl, Clara!

References

References
1 Both movies are ostensibly based on the short story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren, but It Happened One Christmas is clearly a remake of the earlier film, not a new adaptation of the same source material.
2 Couldn’t this remake have called the characters Georgette and Mark? Keeping track of this is very confusing!
3 In It’s a Wonderful Life, the dreadful fate that would have awaited the love interest was for her to have been a single glasses wearing librarian. Suffice to say that’s not what would have happened to the love interest in It Happened One Christmas.
4 If you don’t like ham, maybe you’ll actually prefer it.
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