On a winter day in the early 1980s, Class of 1984 alumna Deborah Whelan went with a friend to see “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time. The film was showing on Grounds in Wilson Hall, but stressed about her upcoming tests, Whelan was reluctant to leave her studying for a movie break.
Two hours later, she left the screening feeling at peace and finding Charlottesville covered in an inch of snow, similar to how Bedford Falls is for much of the film.
The December days are colder, the light leaves the sky earlier and nights are longer as University students prepare to pass and fail their exams. As the ever ill-timed nature of finals makes it difficult to enjoy the holiday season, it’s easy to have a negative attitude towards school, tests and life. But sometimes, all students need is perspective.
At least, that’s what third-year Engineering student Will Hofer thought when he decided to bring back the tradition of showing the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” around the time of finals.
Like Whelan, Will’s father Patrick, a 1983 and 1986 University alumnus, had watched the movie in the early 1980s while a student at the University — for multiple years, it was a University norm to show the movie at the end of the semester to relieve students of their stress. The tradition was popular — Patrick and Mark Allen, a 1990 University alumnus, remember showings being crowded.
Growing up, Will heard stories about these on-Grounds screenings from his father.
“The first time he went he was studying for a test,” Will said. “He was really stressed and he was getting overwhelmed and his friend told him, ‘You have to watch this movie.’ He didn’t understand … And so watching it for the first time it gave him a new sense of hope or of perspective.”
Will said he regularly watches the film now with his family around the holidays, which has in turn had a large impact on his life.
“Watching it every Christmas after finals, it’s always kind of reminded me of the importance of family,” Will said.
This year, Will decided to instead watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the midst of finals and to invite anyone at the University to join. The screening took place from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday in Newcomb Theater. Advertised as a public event on Facebook and through flyers left in libraries and posters plastered around Newcomb Hall, the screening drew about 50 students. Will and two of his friends passed out popcorn before the movie to those entering the theater.
Scheduled about halfway through the finals period, Will hoped the movie would inspire people to look at the tests ahead of them in a more positive light.
“So many students can get overwhelmed with exams,” Will said. “If you’re in the position my dad was in, where you have an exam and you feel like you’re not prepared for it, you feel like your whole life is falling down around you. Then if you see this movie, it will remind you that actually in the long run it’s really not that important.”
Whelan agreed with this message.
“The movie’s message of hope, the value of each human life, and the importance of community still resonate with me,” Whelan said in an email. “Plus it’s funny, and some parts make me cry. My family tries to watch it every December.”
Whelan and Will are not alone in watching the movie regularly around the holiday season. Second-year College student Sophia Van Horn said she watches the movie with her family most years. Both Van Horn and Will are members of the Catholic Hoos, and Van Horn, despite having seen the movie before, said she decided to attend the screening both because she enjoys the film and to show her support for Will. Van Horn also said if there was another showing next year, she would try to get more people to go, since what you get out of the movie changes as you age.
“I think I didn’t really completely understand [the movie] until this year,” Van Horn said. “You learn more things as you get older, and I think there’s definitely a lot of messages in it that people our age should see.”
The 1946 Christmas classic is watched regularly by families and played on television channels throughout the holiday season. But it almost didn’t get the accolade “classic.” Shortly after its release, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was no one’s favorite movie. The film lacked the popularity it enjoys now and failed to break even, only gaining fame after the expiration of its copyright protection and subsequent release into the public domain in 1974. Looking for cheap content, studios started showing the movie.
Though the film might have been free to feature during earlier showings at the University, this was not the case today. Will paid $385 for the film rights, raising the funds from alumni who remembered past showings and Student Activity Fee funds from the Student Council Appropriations Committee.
Despite always wanting to bring the movie back to Grounds, Will chose his third year to initiate the endeavor because he now holds a leadership position in Catholic Hoos, the organization through which he applied for funding. The movie was actually part of Will’s journey to the University — he wrote in his application essay that given the chance to write something on Beta Bridge, he would choose “It’s a Wonderful Life” to remind students of their importance.
Many alumni supported bringing the on-Grounds screenings back.
“It’s one thing to watch that movie by yourself, but I think it’s another to watch it in community,” Allen said. “We can all sort of see the George Bailey in ourselves.”
Indeed, something about the movie seems to cause people to want to share it. After Allen finished his undergraduate degree, he bought a VHS tape of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and shared the movie with those who hadn’t heard of it.
“I spread the gospel of It’s a Wonderful Life to my new friends in New York and Chicago,” Allen said.
From first-years to fourth-years, a cross-section of the University spent 135 minutes watching the film Thursday night, leaving without enhanced preparation for their finals, but likely with a sense of peace. Even though his most stressful finals were over, third-year Engineering student Craig Doody felt this way.
“It puts a lot less pressure on these exams and makes me realize I should recognize more important things in life,” Doody said.