It Happened One Christmas

A week or so ago I scrolled through one of my streaming services, thinking I might get into the holiday spirit by watching a Hallmark-style movie. I read the descriptions of about a dozen and none really looked any better than the other. Then I saw this:

It Happened One Christmas (1977)

I remember watching this on television in the late 1970s. It’s kind of hard to believe now, but when it first aired in 1977, the movie on which it is based, Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s A Wonderful Life, was nowhere near as well-known as it is today. In fact, Marlo Thomas’s remake probably played a big role in reviving interest in the original film, which starred Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore.

I’d been a big fan of Marlo Thomas’s sitcom, That Girl, which ran on ABC for five years, until 1971. The show had a feminist bent–her character, Ann Marie, was a single career woman with a boyfriend she ended up not marrying–that represented Thomas’s own interests in women’s issues. During the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s movement was active and vibrant. The Equal Rights Amendment was a real possibility.

When That Girl ended, Marlo Thomas continued honing her acting skills, appearing on stage and in Hollywood films. In 1972 she released the now-classic album and book, Free To Be…You and Me that addressed issues of individuality and identity for boys and girls. She worked with the Ms. Foundation for Women. By about 1976, she had created two prime time television specials for ABC in 1973 and 1975 and was looking for a new project.

Marlo Thomas thought the time was right for a retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life, but with a gender-role reversal. She would play Mary Bailey, the daughter who gives up her dreams of international travel and writing to stay home and run the family’s building and loan. She cast the personable, charming Wayne Rogers as George Hatch, her builder husband. Thomas convinced Orson Wells to play the evil Mr. Potter, and Cloris Leachman came on board as the kooky angel Clara.

It should have worked. It could have become a modern Christmas classic. But it didn’t.

As I watched it again, I realized the problem was historical. Marlo Thomas kept the same time period, 1920s-1940s, for her remake, but failed to consider what it would mean for a middle-class, white, married woman to take a position as the head of a local financial institution. It also didn’t help that Mary Bailey Hatch talked and dressed like a woman straight out of the late 1970s. The lines that Jimmy Stewart delivered so well as George Bailey sounded artificial coming from Mary Hatch, like she was reciting them because she had to. And her fashions were just so distractedly wrong.

If Marlo Thomas had set the story in her current time–in 1977–she may have felt freer to explore the gender issues she was clearly so interested in, to invent better, sharper dialogue more in keeping with a liberated woman. And she would have created a more compelling, complex heroine.

Though ABC ran the Marlo Thomas remake at least two more times, it was quickly overshadowed by rebroadcasts of the original. Lots of viewers concluded that It’s A Wonderful Life was much better. Thomas had a great idea and the time was indeed right. Her inattention to history sunk It Happened One Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I’m looking forward to watching Elf and A Christmas Story, which have recently become my two favorite Christmas movies. I may dip into White Christmas again, too.

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