That Time I Wrote to Tom Shales

This event had its origins back when I was a kid that had just finished getting braces. The orthodontist told my parents that I would be in some pain for the first night and may have trouble sleeping. The end result was that I could stay up and watch our TV all night, which then consisted of four channels and only old movies were what I could find. By chance it was a marathon of Frank Capra films. Now I had no idea of who he was at the time, but I loved all the movies, and the movies made me forget about the pain I was experiencing with my teeth. I started talking about the movies I had watched to one of my older brothers and he told me “oh, those are all directed by Frank Capra.” Two things struck me, which were that the director is the creative force of a film, and that I loved Frank Capra movies.

As I got older, reading about, and studying films and film-making became a serious hobby for me. My favorite all time movie became It’s A Wonderful Life (Black & White Version). I saw in it, more than just the happy Christmas movie a new audience had made it. In 1986, I read that a book was published, The It’s a Wonderful Life Book written by Jeanine Basinger. It was a nice companion book for the movie and I enjoyed reading it and adding it to my growing collection of film books. I also noticed that Tom Shales had a review for the book in the Washington Post which I was interested to read. Mr. Shales didn’t seem to like the book very much, knocking it for not being critical enough of the movie as I recall. I was incredulous, thinking, does he not understand that the book was meant as a companion book, not a serious critique?  In my opinion at that time and still today, I feel that a critic should judge the product (book, film etc.) on the merits of what it was trying to accomplish, not what the critic thought it should be trying to accomplish. It would be like giving a bad review to Blazing Saddles because it wasn’t dramatic enough.

So, it was at this time that I decided to write to Mr. Shales telling him what I thought of the book review and how I thought he should be writing reviews. I also did some research and found an address where I could send a copy of the letter with my own note praising the book to Jeanine Basinger.

I never did hear back from Mr. Shales but I did receive a very nice letter back from Jeanine Basinger thanking me for the kind words and the defense of the book.

The story, like a Frank Capra film, had a great ending. I corresponded several times more with Jeanine Basinger learning much about film, the Frank Capra Archives and she relayed a letter that I wrote to Frank Capra to him for me. I received word back that he was touched by my words and thanked me for being a fan.

I would highly recommend her book as well as her other books on film including A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 and I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. For a couple of serious essays on It’s A Wonderful Life, I would recommend A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema 1930-1980 and American Vision, The Films of Frank Capra.


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