I’d be hard-pressed to have to decide which of all the many movies I’ve seen over the course of my life would be the one I’d settle on as being the absolute best, or even my favorite. Part of the difficulty is that I’ve been fortunate to have lived during the waning years of what was still Hollywood’s heyday. Movies were made primarily for adults, when adults still wanted an adult form of escapism and younger audiences still wanted to engage the challenges of adulthood, the sooner the better.

Growing up, movies were a place where I could vicariously prepare myself for what was to come. Whether highbrow or low, cinema back then had an inherent social conscience. Narratives of heroism, whether swashbuckling or gumshoe, cowboy or G.I., always had an underpinning concerned with justice, right versus wrong, good vs. evil. Violence had a moral compass even when lacking a true north. Romances were still primarily about love. Comedy was mostly commentary on the human condition, with no need of vulgarity. Endings were largely hopeful, or morally instructive. Morality was a big thing at one time, even without a bogus politics imposed censorship-centric rating system. Overall, entertainment as an uplifting experience, even in a horror genre mode, was pretty much what sold tickets.

Though homegrown reigned supreme, Hollywood’s addictive magic was given birth by France’s Lumiere brothers, and Georges Melies’s very trippy “A Trip To The Moon” still rules my earliest recollections of Saturday morning TV. Filmmaking’s captivating universal language was welcomed in any form.

Though sometimes crudely dubbed into English, foreign films were actually shown in small-town mainstream venues. Like the ability of silent films to communicate without sound, great films of pure cinema transcended any difficulties with subtitles. A knight and Death playing out a mortal game of chess on a black and white beach was every bit as awesome as a Technicolor Robin Hood’s cavalier verbal swordplay while fencing with Basil Rathbone.

Though of a previous generation, Errol Flynn was still idolized as an American matinee role model of derring-do overcoming all obstacles. Bergman was my first introduction to a truly foreign sensibility exploring where more overt art and entertainment could coincide. Then came Fellini, Kurosawa and Antonioni. America made movies. Europe made films. Back then, the otherwise xenophobic-prone postwar environment I grew up in somehow managed to muster an audience for both.

The word “film” isn’t even used anymore among anyone I know. Motion pictures today have mostly become either modest Indie “artistic” entertainments or bottom-line based blockbuster movies. Name any movie you’ve seen lately that actually comes anywhere close to the greatness of film as an art form or can rival the feel-good grandeur of so many extraordinarily well-crafted movies of the past. Scrolling Amazon’s suggested popular offerings one would never have a clue that John Huston or Maine’s own epic John Ford ever made films. Movies made not so much for profit but for artistic bragging rights. All the blue-screened digitalized storytelling that’s come to pass for actual movie-making will never hold a candle to the brilliance of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” optical poetry.

The trade-off provided by today’s brave new world of computing art rather than crafting it is that the great cinema of the past is still here somewhere if one chooses to digitally find it. Its experience via the Cloud will never be the same as when projected in the dark, larger than life and real film versus digital, but it’s still an impressive facsimile of what movies could once achieve.

This time of year the wonder of old Hollywood remains alive and well represented in the long established seasonal celebration of the Frank Capra holiday favorite “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It’s likely that I’ve seen at least some part of it once a year every year that I’ve been alive. Even when I was in diapers. Even in the years when I didn’t own a TV, and before rental capabilities, it was always an unavoidably ubiquitous part of the Xmas experience. Seeing any part of it immediately brings complete remembrance of its narrative arc. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, no matter how familiar its storyline, it never fails to entertain and re-establish itself as an iconic example of picture-perfect picture making. There’s no part of it that isn’t a set piece. Each scene is a self-contained purposeful tableau within an overarching big picture conveying the still bigger picture of the value of each and every life no matter how seemingly inconsequential.

It may not be the best picture to ever come out of Hollywood, or my all-time favorite, but it perennially sets a very high bar for what movies can be and what we should value in entertainment. That its heartwarming redemptive story is set at Yuletide remains an annually resurrected secular gift that continues to remind us that life is indeed a very wonderful and precious thing and that we’re all capable of being each other’s wingless guardian angel.

Capra’s classic Christmas message rings the bell every time.

Gary Anderson lives in Bath.

Comments are not available on this story.