Now that it’s dark at 5 p.m. and traffic seems to have gotten infinitely worse overnight, I find myself in the holiday mood. In L.A., there’s no apparent reason for this feeling. The weather is still sunny, the hills are still a bit fire-scorched, but some of the trees have fall colors and at least one radio station is playing nonstop holidays jams (even if it’s way way way too soon).
My sons, Hank and Leo, are also getting in the spirit. As soon as Halloween was over, it was time for the Christmas lights and books to come out. The schools started planning their decorations and so did my family. Even in our Mediterranean climate, Hollywood has always been good at creating a wintry illusion for us. So, in December, I take to the movies, and this year, my sons are coming along for the ride.
Dads going ape for the holidays is a Hollywood tradition – think “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Jingle all the Way” or Tim Allen’s “The Santa Clause” trilogy. There’s a common trope in these films: Suburban dad tries to make good with the kids by going all out for the holidays. The granddaddy of this film genre is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This year, I decided, is the perfect time to show my kids the 1946 RKO Pictures classic starring James Stewart. In my view, it’s the greatest Christmas movie ever filmed in Los Angeles.
Just west of the Sepulveda Basin, there’s a midcentury subdivision called Encino Village. This little neighborhood represents, for some, a family-residential ideal. It’s a hot area for realtors and, like nearby Woodland Hills, this area is often one of the hottest in terms of temperature in L.A. There are a couple snowflakes of irony in this Encino square mile. In the ’30s and ’40s, the former ranchland was used by RKO to recreate the charming colonial villages of the East Coast. This is where director Frank Capra filmed many of the exteriors for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Encino was Bedford Falls, N.Y. and Stewart, as dad George Bailey, ran through the streets yelling “Merry Christmas!” while it was 85 degrees on the San Fernando Valley set.
Today’s Encino Village doesn’t look like Bedford Falls. It looks more like what became the ideal neighborhood in California in the ’50s and ’60s: lawns, garages and plenty of space where kids can run around in the SoCal sun. I still plan on taking Hank and Leo there, however.
An aside: Other now defunct Hollywood movie ranches are a fascinating window into Old Hollywood. Paramount Ranch near Malibu Canyon, for instance, has withstood a few wildfires and still contains much of its old Western town, making it a great destination for the child obsessed with cowboy movies.
I won’t delve too deeply into the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I think it captured a certain existential feeling that only a parent can understand. The film’s George Bailey, at one point, was living the American dream. When he fears he is about to lose it all, he becomes so despondent and overcome with the fear of failing his family during the holidays that he contemplates suicide. The movie always made me somewhat confused as a child. “Why is this nice dad so stressed out?” I wondered. “It’s Christmas!” But dads across the country could (and still can) relate to at least some of the character’s sense of anxiety.
As we watched Bailey go through his trails, I told Hank, “You know, this movie was filmed a few miles from here.”
He looked at me, shocked. “It doesn’t snow here, Dad,” he said. “No way.”
I could have told him that Hollywood can create miracles through the magic of pretend play. But instead, I kept the magic going, with a twist: “Every time it snows,” I told him, “the City of Angels gets its wings.”
Isaac Parfrey is a writer, composer and L.A. native who enjoys roaming Southern California with his wife, Kate, and sons, Hank and Leo. Follow him on Twitter @IsaacParfrey.