Robert Francis: It’s A Wonderful Life: The sequel?

Employee Grayson Allred walks away with a ladder after working on the front marquee at the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Abilene, Texas. The marquee which in part reads, "It's A Wonderful Life, Cancelled", notifies all would-be patrons that the theatre has closed down indefinitely due to rising cases of COVID-19 in the city. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

From the time of cave drawings to the French Belle Époque era of iconic posters to the current popularity of memes and Instagram, the image connects like no other medium of communication – this coming from someone who lives by words, by and large. But it’s true.

If you read old newspapers where illustrations are typically simple, shaded line drawings, you wonder how people got through the sludge of words, to say nothing of the sometimes-poor print quality. A great photo and story are probably the best combination and early in my reporting days I often made friends with the photographers and tried to shake ideas out of their heads.

One guy wasn’t really a very good photographer but was willing to experiment with different angles and ideas when he took a photograph. I had the weird job of laying out the Monday paper at the Grand Prairie Daily News before I did the Sunday paper.

This was obviously before the industry was computerized. Also, the Monday paper was not exactly newsy, so I made a point of letting the photographer take some more avant-garde photos for the Monday paper. I’d run them large and write a short, non-newsy story to accompany the photo. Eventually, the main editor started wanting the avant-garde photos for the Sunday edition and the Monday paper once again became little more than a lining for a bird cage.

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So I’m always on the lookout for a photo that says a bit more than just what is in the picture. The photo I’ve attached here is one of those.

The beautifully restored Paramount Theatre in Abilene annually holds showings of the Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life. This year, however, was different. Abilene, a city of 125,000 settled by cattlemen and women that boasts a number of church-affiliated higher-education institutions, had been largely spared the initial round of COVID-19 outbreaks in the spring. Not so this fall and winter as cases have risen and health care facilities have been overwhelmed. The city has recorded 179 deaths and 10,475 cases.

As a result, the showings of the Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed holiday classic were … well, the sign says it best: It’s A Wonderful Life: Cancelled. It was that photo that spoke to me as emblematic of 2020. It’s kind of funny, ironic and a little bit true. And, if you know the movie well, it’s not exactly the full-on feel-good classic it is often made out to be. In fact, the first time I saw it as a kid, it was kind of scary. It’s a bit more of a nightmare that eventually veers, ever so slowly, toward a happy ending. But it’s no Hallmark or Lifetime holiday sugary celluloid offering. You pay for your happy ending in It’s A Wonderful Life with a journey through the darkness. Maybe that’s 2020. Certainly if you watch the many reports on how the scientific community mustered its collective intellectual firepower to provide a vaccine, you can’t help but see some light at the end of the darkness.

The photo also spoke to me on a personal level. I have a niece who lives there, and she has taken photos of her family under the marquee in past years with her preternaturally photogenic children bright and smiling. This year? This year, as we all know, is different.

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Do you have a photo that’s emblematic of 2020? Let me know what speaks to you. In the meantime, enjoy Frank Capra’s unmade sequel: It’s A Wonderful Life: Cancelled.