When “It Happened One Christmas,” a gender-bending take on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” debuted on ABC in 1977, the 1947 Frank Capra original with was rarely seen on TV. This soon changed in the 1980s when it became almost impossible to turn on your set in December and not stumble upon some portion of the film. As a result, I think it’s likely that those under 30 have never seen the remake.
That’s a shame because if you’re inclined to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” multiple times, there’s no harm in seeing this version at least once. It stars Marlo Thomas (“That Girl”) as Mary Bailey Hatch and Wayne Rogers (“M*A*S*H”) as George Hatch. Although she has the same name as Donna Reed’s character from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she’s basically playing the Jimmy Stewart character with Rogers serving as dutiful husband George.
Cloris Leachman plays Clara, Mary’s guardian angel, and Orson Welles (yes, Orson Welles) is the evil Mr. Potter. Welles is particularly fun to watch as one of the great screen villains.
The update remains set in the 1940s — requiring a bit of suspension of belief regarding Mary’s choices in life but whatever, this is a movie with an angel. The clip I’ve included is the part everyone knows — arguably even the few who’ve never seen “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Mary is delighted to discover that she’s returned to the reality she knows instead of the Wal-Mart at every stoplight nightmare she’d just witnessed. Reinforcing the Christ allusion is the fact that she has no reason to believe there’s a happy ending waiting for her. She’s even pleased when the police greet her with a warrant for her arrest. So what if she spends Christmas in the slammer, her mission has been accomplished… I guess. I mean, if she winds up in jail and her business fails, there’s nothing to stop Mr. Potter from moving on with his plans to turn Bedford Falls into a tacky Las Vegas or, simply, Las Vegas.
Fortunately, Mary’s friends and family bail her out — she’s too nice to fail. Wendell Jamieson pointed out in The New York Times that George (and his female doppelganger) would still have been liable for the colossal incompetence that led to the funds going missing in the first place. Shows you what Jamieson knew: He wrote this piece in 2008 around the time of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (i.e. “bank bailouts”). If you’ve read Andrew Sorkin’s “Too Big To Fail,” you’d know that there were apparently countless senile Uncle Billys handing avaricious Mr. Potters newspapers filled with money (or more specifically mortgages that were worth about as much as a newspaper). These guys are still in business somehow, which makes the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “It Happened One Christmas” sadly realistic.
“It Happened One Christmas” is not available on DVD and despite The Hallmark Channel finding time for “Lucky Christmas” on its holiday roster, there are no upcoming airings scheduled this year. You can see it at the Paley Center for Media in New York, which used to be the Museum of Television and Radio, where I practically lived during the late 1990s. It was renamed in 2007 to reflect its inclusion of Internet, mobile video, and podcasting and to also make me feel like a fossil.