In a few weeks, trees sprout red and green lights that blink. The crèches emerge (despite the ACLU’s wise men). Carol singers and bells appear, as do hot cider, candy canes, angel hair, geographically displaced reindeer, and a Frank Capra film.

One moment—what was that last item? A Frank Capra film? Indeed: this list is checked twice, and we mean it. It’s a Wonderful Life, made by Capra in 1946, shows up on television every holiday season as surely as snowmen on December lawns.

Among the director’s masterpieces are It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But Capra (now nearly 90 years old) considers It’s a Wonderful Life, a two-hour motion picture conceived from a Christmas card, the best of all.

Capra’s early life was no Christmas card. His family left Sicily in 1903, summoned to fabled America by a letter from a disappeared brother thought dead for five years. In California Capra’s father hoped to work himself and his family out of poverty. But one morning Papa was found in the well house—his chest crushed between the teeth of two large gears, the long pump belt wrapped wildly around his body.

Frank Capra afforded college by holding two jobs and a daily schedule that began at 3:30 A.M. and ended at 10 P.M. Then (as Capra tells it in his autobiography) he drifted for three years, “running, looking, sinking lower.” Sunk low enough, he desperately answered a want ad and got into the movie business. There he gradually ascended from flunky to film editor to director.

All this helps to account for a prominent Capra theme. There is, really, no little person. Each is “an island of human dignity.” Others could make films about the “grand sweeps of history.” Capra contented himself with easily overlooked but noble individuals, ...

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