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Perspective | Donna Reed’s daughter performs guardian angel for ‘It’s a Great Life’


Since 1974, when a copyright lapse despatched it into the general public area, the 1946 Frank Capra drama “It’s a Great Life” has been a Christmas basic, 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 grow to be a cherished seasonal ritual all through the nation. “It’s grow to be a convention,” she mentioned 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 is a Great 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 Great Life.” Though a number of venues had been capable of guide the movie as typical, others say they had been informed they wouldn’t have entry to it till January, after an unique run sponsored by Fathom Occasions, Turner Traditional Films and distributor Paramount Footage.

“The primary time I heard about it I assumed, ‘We’ve got left Bedford Falls,’” recollects Owen, referring to the fictional city the place Bailey grows up and, by the tip of the movie, discovers that he has been a power for good all alongside. When she heard that her native nonprofit artwork home, FilmScene, could be barred from exhibiting “It’s a Great 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 grow to be a convention,” mentioned Owen, 65, who moved to Iowa in 2020 to assist manage her mom’s centennial. Stopping small theaters from exhibiting “It’s a Great Life,” she says, “goes utterly towards the essence of the film” and its beliefs of group, 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 Great Life,” wherein mom-and-pop values handle to beat profit-driven commercialism. However it’s not all the time as clear-cut because it appears. Life, whereas typically great, is simply as more likely to be ambiguous, contradictory and a bit 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 ultimately joined the Fathom occasion, which happened in additional than 1,000 theaters from Dec. 18 by means of Dec. 21. Some venues adopted go well with, whereas others took to the streets — actually. After initially being informed she couldn’t play “It’s a Great Life,” Ellen Elliott, government director of Mates of the Penn, which runs the nonprofit Penn Theatre in Plymouth, Mich., says she found that the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham had obtained an exemption. “I’m like what?!” Elliott recalled lately, including that when she did some digging she came upon different theaters in Michigan had additionally obtained 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 guide ‘Planes, Trains and Vehicles’ at Thanksgiving, and that had a moratorium, too. However ‘It’s a Great Life’? No. You don’t do this with this movie.”

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

“I wasn’t positive what was going to occur, however folks got here they usually saved coming,” Elliott recalled, estimating that as many as 1,000 folks confirmed as much as the rally. “It was similar to the tip of ‘It’s a Great Life,’ the place all people involves George’s home. … We bought wonderful footage of the crowds, our NBC affiliate was there. They’d reached out to Paramount twice that day they usually by no means responded. However the subsequent afternoon I bought an e-mail [from the studio] saying, ‘We’re blissful to guide this for you.’”

Since October, extra theaters have been given the go-ahead to play “It’s a Great Life,” however not all had been so fortunate. Chris Collier, government director at Renew Theaters, which manages 4 nonprofit theaters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, says he obtained 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 price our employees time to battle a dropping battle. The flip aspect is that the period of time we might have invested lobbying Paramount we’re now spending speaking with upset patrons about why we’re not enjoying ‘It’s a Great Life.’”

As for who performs Mr. Potter on this story, nobody is prepared to just accept the function. Fathom Occasions CEO Ray Nutt insists that the corporate made an exception to its typical coverage of demanding exclusivity, permitting greater than 300 impartial theaters to point out “It’s a Great Life” alongside the multiplexes that compose the majority of its community (Fathom is owned by the three greatest theater chains in the US: AMC, Regal and Cinemark). The Fathom engagement has been a field workplace success: When it ended on Dec. 21, “It’s a Great Life” had earned greater than $1.4 million and a spot within the week’s prime 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 group theater.

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Paramount declined to remark straight, sending a press release by means of a spokesperson that any theater that wishes to play “It’s a Great 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 Great Life” this 12 months demonstrates the fragility of a theatrical ecosystem wherein small, impartial theaters are chronically in danger — regardless that they typically demonstrated creativity and nimbleness in hanging on to audiences in the course of the pandemic shutdown. “When a multiplex is allowed to take one thing that was born and initially proven in these little theaters they usually’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 towards the realities of personal possession — of every little thing from in style HBO packages to Twitter — “It’s a Great Life” occupies a singular place within the collective psyche as one thing owned by everybody, a product of Bedford Falls, not Pottersville. Owen, who 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 happening. “The universality of this film is form of unbelievable,” Owen mentioned. “I additionally suppose it speaks to this concept of group that we actually have misplaced. We’ve grow to be so divided. Individuals in all probability do acknowledge Pottersville as extra of what we’re residing in now, however they actually do wish to deal with one another higher.”



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