After 70 years, It's (still) a Wonderful (Catholic) Life in Frank Capra's epic

After receiving 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot repented, threw the money away and hanged himself.

Religious authorities used the money, according to St. Matthew's Gospel, to buy the "potter's field, to bury strangers in," which became known as the "field of blood."

Anyone who thinks it was a coincidence that the slums owned by bitter banker Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" were called "Potter's Field" isn't paying attention to the gospel according to Frank Capra.

"There's no question that Capra's great enough" to be listed among Hollywood's greatest Catholic filmmakers, said critic Steven D. Greydanus of and The National Catholic Register. He also serves as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.

"It's a Wonderful Life," he stressed, is also Capra's greatest film and the one that best captures his Catholic view of life. Capra directed, co-wrote and produced the film, which was released on Christmas Day in 1946. The movie's 70th anniversary will be celebrated Dec. 9-11 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the model for the fictional Bedford Falls.

"Capra worked harder on this film than any other," said Greydanus. "He was passionate about it and the themes in it. …  I think his worldview was shaped by his Catholic upbringing and, whatever idiosyncrasies he added as an adult, that faith shaped this movie."

The star who played the movie's protagonist -- George Bailey, who sacrifices his dreams to provide for family and friends -- described that worldview in an interview included in "The 'It's a Wonderful Life' Book."

"You've got to go back to the value that Frank puts on life, on work, on responsibility and on genuine family togetherness," said Jimmy Stewart. "Those are the values he has and he has them very strong. Love of country, love of God -- he's tremendously strong on those. And he's able to get them up on the screen without preaching."

The film was initially considered a flop, in part because of the dark, even angry scenes in its story arc, with Bailey ending up on a bridge considering suicide because of a business scandal. Even after a whimsical guardian angel is sent to his aid, Bailey faces horrifying visions of what the world would have been like if he had never been born.

"It's a Wonderful Life" achieved classic status after decades of Christmas TV exposure. But one thing never changed. Critics initially called it "Capra-corn" and, if anything, some critics have become even more venomous.

Thus, the 1946 New York Times review called the movie a "figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes." A 2008 Times essay called it a "terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams … of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife."

In his autobiography, "The Name Above the Title," Capra stressed that his film "wasn't made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati" and defended it in explicitly biblical terms.

This was, he wrote, a "film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, 'Heads up, fella.' … A film that expressed its love for the homeless and the loveless; for her whose cross is heavy and him whose touch is ashes; for the Magdalenes stoned by hypocrites and the afflicted Lazaruses with only dogs to lick their sores."

It's all there in first frames of "It's a Wonderful Life," as the hero's friends and loved ones are heard whispering prayers during his crisis.

"I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father."

"Joseph, Jesus and Mary. Help my friend Mr. Bailey."

"Help my son George tonight."

"He never thinks about himself, God, that's why he's in trouble."

"Please, God. Something's the matter with Daddy."

The stars twinkle and the powers of heaven act.

"This is a movie about faith, family, sacrifice and redemption," said Greydanus. "But there's a bigger picture here and that's the intercession of the saints. … George Bailey really had a wonderful life and all of the people he touched call out on his behalf. Their prayers are heard and God sends help. …

"There's nothing cynical and ironic about it. That's why this movie still connects with people."