Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Wonderful Carol

Continuing an annual tradition, I enjoyed watching both "A Christmas Carol" and "It's A Wonderful Life" (although I did watch, for the first time ever, the George C. Scott version of "'Carol" this year instead of my favorite, the 1970 musical film "Scrooge.")  I also found a scholarly essay recently on-line comparing the themes of both stories as commentaries on redemption and second chances.  The essay made some interesting arguments but also missed, I feel, a key difference:  that Scrooge, an essentially bad guy who lived a life of unhappiness, lived a very different life from George Bailey, a basically nice guy who made many friends and sacrificed his happiness for others.  Scrooge needed a "spiritual" guide to point out his errors and make reforms while George's spiritual mentor pointed out the good things to boost George's self image.  Both, we assume, amended their lives--Scrooge externally through his treatment of others and George internally through a new found self-realization of the source of true happiness.  So, "yes" redemption is a concurrent theme but for different reasons and with differing outcomes.
Speaking of second chances, I find it ironic just how much "It's A Wonderful Life" represents rebirth.  As many know, the movie was a critical success but a bit of a financial flop when it came out in 1946.  So much so that in 1974, when its original 28-year copyright expired, the studio felt so little about it that it neglected to renew the movie's copyright--an act that, essentially, consisted of filing a short paper and sending a nominal check.  By 1975, "Wonderful Life" became public domain right smack dab in the middle of the rise of cable television and the expansion of the UHF dial--an era when plenty of broadcasters were looking for cheap, if not free, public domain things to fill air-time.  For the next 18-years, it was a free-for-all and Wonderful Life was showed dozens of times every December by any and all networks and cable channels.  Furthermore, no less than twenty companies released the movie on video cassette, often finding its way to the dollar bin at the local drug store  The period was successful reviving interest in the film, establishing a another holiday tradition and introducing a black and white classic film to a new generation.
In 1993, Republic Pictures, which had acquired the library of the now defunct Liberty Films, saw dollar signs flying through the air and sought to re-acquire the copyright to the now valuable property.  While the film itself could not be re- copyrighted, the studio's lawyers cleverly figured out a back door way to lock down film--examining old contracts, they discovered they still owned the musical soundtrack rights and, more important, they owned the film rights to the original story from which it was based--a forgotten short story called "The Greatest Gift."  By exercising these rights, no one could sell "It's A Wonderful Life" without permission unless they rearranged the entire plot and replaced the music.  Those claims were asserted in court and only NBC has the limited broadcast rights.  
So "It's a Wonderful Life" is lucrative today because a studio which did not produce it originally has greedily found a way to make money off of it.  Meanwhile, the film's's "second chance" and "redemption"...came about because of a clerical error in 1974 that allowed the film to be shown again, albeit temporarily, in the public domain for nearly two decades.  Oh, and it has a character named "Martini" which is pretty darn cool, too!

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