Donna Reed's Daughter Plays Guardian Angel in 'It's a Wonderful Life'

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Since 1974, when a copyright lapse placed it in the public domain, Frank Capra’s 1946 drama “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been a Christmas classic, largely because it offered free programming to television stations. Over two decades, the uplifting story of George Bailey (James Stewart) overcoming suicidal despair with the help of a guardian angel has become the quintessential Christmas movie, filled with a suitably evil villain – ruthless banker Mr. Potter – and a wholesome, heartwarming romance, through George’s loyal and resourceful wife, Mary, played by Donna Reed.

For the past 15 years, Mary Owen – the youngest Reed daughter – has appeared in annual screenings at small independent theaters that have become a beloved seasonal ritual across the country. “It became a tradition,” she said recently from her home in Iowa City, 200 miles from where her mother grew up in Denison, Iowa.

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But that tradition faced an existential threat similar to that of George Bailey earlier this year, when some small theaters thought they wouldn’t be able to show “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While several venues were able to book the film as usual, others say they were told they wouldn’t have access to it until January after an exclusive screening sponsored by Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies and distributor Paramount Pictures.

“The first time I heard about it, I thought, ‘We’ve left Bedford Falls,’” recalls Owen, referring to the fictional town where Bailey grew up and, at the end of the film, discovers that it has been a force for good. during all this time. When she heard that her local non-profit art house, FilmScene, might be blocked from showing “It’s a Wonderful Life”, she was furious.

“I’ve been a part of this momentum of showing the film in small, independent theaters since 2007, and it’s become a tradition,” said Owen, 65, who moved to Iowa in 2020 to help organize his mother’s centennial. Blocking small theaters from showing “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she says, “completely goes against the grain of the film” and its ideals of community, generosity and self-sacrifice.

It’s tempting to see George Baileys and Mr. Potters at every turn in a story that has uncanny parallels to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where family values ​​manage to trump profit-driven commercialism. But it is not always as clear as it seems. Life, while often wonderful, is just as likely to be ambiguous, contradictory, and a little fuzzy around the edges.

But a shared moral of both tales is that for Mom and Dad to prevail, they must defend themselves.

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After conversations with Fathom and Paramount, FilmScene finally joined the Fathom event, which took place in over 1,000 theaters from December 18-21. Some locals followed suit, while others took to the streets – literally. After initially being told she couldn’t play “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Ellen Elliott, executive director of Friends of the Penn, which runs the nonprofit Penn Theater in Plymouth, Mich., says she learned that the Alabama Theater in Birmingham had received an exemption. “I’m like what?!” Elliott recently recalled, adding that when she did some research, she found that other theaters in Michigan also received waivers. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m not going to lie down,” Elliott noted. “Fathom does this with movies all the time – we wanted to book ‘Planes, Trains and Cars’ on Thanksgiving, and that too had a moratorium. But ‘It’s a wonderful life’? Do not. You don’t do that with this movie.

On October 26, Elliott sent a text message and Facebook post encouraging Penn customers to attend the next day’s screening of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” to a group photo in front of Penn with the message “Please Please preserve our community tradition.” in your marquee.

“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but people came and kept coming,” Elliott recalled, estimating that around 1,000 people attended the rally. “It was like the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where everyone comes over to George’s house. … We took amazing pictures of the crowd, our NBC affiliate was there. They contacted Paramount twice that day and never responded. But the next afternoon I got an email [from the studio] saying, ‘We’re happy to book this for you.’”

Since October, more theaters have received authorization to show “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but not all have been so lucky. Chris Collier, executive director of Renew Theaters, which runs four nonprofit theaters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, says he received an email from Paramount in August saying the film would be “out of release this holiday season due to the upcoming event Fathom”. He just took no for an answer and moved on. “We are small and still have few employees because of the pandemic,” explains Collier. “On the one hand, it was not worth our team’s time to fight a losing battle. The flip side is that the amount of time we could have invested lobbying Paramount, we’re now spending communicating with disappointed customers about why we’re not playing ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.

As for who plays Mr. Potter in this story, nobody is willing to accept the role. Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt insists the company made an exception to its usual policy of demanding exclusivity, allowing more than 300 independent theaters to show “It’s a Wonderful Life” alongside the multiplexes that make up most of its network. (Fathom is owned by the three largest theater chains in the US: AMC, Regal and Cinemark). Fathom’s engagement has been a box office success: When it ended on Dec. 21, “It’s a Wonderful Life” had grossed more than $1.4 million and a spot on the week’s Top Artists. And the film attracted more than 117,000 viewers, a reminder that in many cities, suburbs and suburbs, the multiplex It’s community theater.

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Paramount declined to comment directly, sending a statement through a spokesperson that any theater that wants to show “It’s a Wonderful Life” can show it – a claim that raises the question of whether every time a studio From Hollywood tries to dodge a potential PR crisis an angel gains its wings.

For Elliott, in Plymouth, Michigan, this year’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” saga demonstrates the fragility of a theater ecosystem in which small, independent theaters are chronically at risk – yet they often demonstrate creativity and agility in grappling with audiences during the shutdown of the pandemic. “When a multiplex is allowed to pick up something that was born and originally shown in these small theaters and they’re blocked from doing that, you’re killing the little guy,” she says. “Small-town theater is being treated almost the same as a multiplex, and it’s not the same thing. Distributors need to understand this.”

At a time when nostalgia and fan loyalty are increasingly clashing with the reality of private ownership – of everything from popular HBO shows to Twitter – “It’s a Wonderful Life” occupies a singular place in the collective psyche as something owned by all, a product of Bedford Falls, not Pottersville. Owen, who recently showed the film at the IFC Center in Manhattan, said this year’s screenings were imbued with a different spirit than previous years.

“There was an exuberance that I haven’t felt in a long time,” she said, adding that beyond the post-pandemic joy of being in a theater together, something more ambitious was afoot. “The universality of this film is unbelievable,” said Owen. “I also think it speaks to this idea of ​​community that we’ve really lost. We have become so divided. People probably recognize Pottersville as more than what we’re living in right now, but they really want to treat themselves better.”