Should I Watch..? 'It's a Wonderful Life'
What's the big deal?
It's A Wonderful Life is a black-and-white Christmas fantasy film released in 1946 and was directed by Frank Capra. The film is an adaptation of the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern and concerns a suicidal man who is mysteriously given the opportunity to see how much he has affected the lives of those around him. The film stars James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers. Despite being a box office failure when it was first released, the film has gone on to become one of the most popular in American cinema and is now regarded as traditional Christmas viewing. It was nominated for five Academy awards and frequently features on lists of the greatest movies of all time. Capra himself chose this film as his personal favourite of his illustrious career, screening it for his family every year.
What's It About?
It's Christmas Eve in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls but George Bailey has fallen into a suicidal despair. Upon receiving prayers asking for his help, Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody is assigned to assist George and reviews George's life in order to prepare. The film then goes into a flashback, showing George as a young boy saving the life of his brother Harry. As George grows up, he finds himself enamoured with Mary Hatch who eventually becomes his wife. Together, they work at the Building & Loan Company that George's father founded and is later passed down to George to manage - despite the rivalry with local banker Mr Potter and his unscrupulous attempts to undermine it.
After his uncle and business partner Billy loses a considerable sum of money (the last in the Building & Loan Company's possession), George returns home in a foul mood and takes it out on Mary and their four children. Storming out of their humble home, George gets involved in a bar fight before finally stumbling to a bridge, realising that everything he has worked towards is slipping away from him. With dark thoughts in his mind, George is then introduced to Clarence and an unusual relationship develops...
2012 Re-Release Trailer
Mary Bailey / Mary Hatch
Henry F. Potter
Uncle Billy Bailey
Francis Goodrich, Albert Hackett & Frank Capra *
Release Date (UK)
15th May, 1947
Christmas, Drama, Fantasy
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Leading Actor (Stewart), Best Director, Best Sound, Best Film Editing
What's to like?
Not being an American or particularly enthused by monochromatic movies, I had no previous exposure to It's A Wonderful Life which gave me the blessed approach of someone completely new to the experience. I knew basic aspects - the plot, James Stewart running up a snowy highway shouting "Merry Christmas!", things like that - but personally, the movie was one of joyous discovery. Like most life-affirming pictures, the film lays on the bleakness pretty thick before redemption finally comes although never has a character struck a chord with me like George Bailey. At that time in my life (just a few years before writing this article), I too was someone who slowly let life get on top of them without becoming aware of it. You reach a point where everything seems to happen at once and, like Bailey, you too reach the end of your rope. I can't claim to have gotten drunk and wandered out to a bridge to contemplate suicide but Bailey's predicament was one I was all too familiar with.
Stewart gives one of the best performances of his distinguished career as Bailey, an honest man who doesn't see his place in the world around him. His scenes in the bar, before he heads out to possibly kill himself, are truly heart-breaking and utterly convince you that this is a man with nothing to lose. It's a shock to see him crumble in such a way because, for the most part, he embodies the spirit of Bedford Falls against the tyranny of the Scrooge-like Mr Potter (wonderfully played by Barrymore). His chemistry with Reed is a winning one and even the comedic interplay between himself and Travers - who doesn't really appear until the final act - also feels organic and believable.
The film works on so many levels - technically, it's amazing to see the beautiful town of Bedford Falls morph into the vice-ridden slum of Pottersville while the story is a timeless fable, one which resonates with people like myself immeasurably. At its heart, the film is little more than a slight reworking of Dickens' A Christmas Carol but with its cast on form and Capra allowing the film to overload in festive schmaltz for the final scenes, it's one of the most powerful and emotive films I've ever seen. I rarely cry at movies but my Better Half was amused to see me completely choked up at the ending. I never tire of this film and I suspect I never will.
- For the scene where Reed is supposed to throw a rock at the window of the Granville house, a marksman was hired in order to get the shot. To everybody's surprise, Reed smashed the window with no help whatsoever—nobody knew that she played baseball in high school.
- The film was responsible for the development of a new snow to be used in film, comprised of fire-fighting foam, soap and water pumped through a wind machine. Previous films had used cornflakes painted white!
- Both Stewart and Reed came from small towns similar to Bedford Falls, which is fictional. Reed demonstrated her rural roots when she won a bet with Lionel Barrymore who challenged her to milk a cow on set.
What's Not to Like?
Younger viewers not used to black-and-white movies will be put off by the look of the film, though there are colorized versions out there if you must. Stewart's age also is a little off-putting when he's supposed to be playing George Bailey at high school, reminiscent of some of the older "child" actors at Hogwarts in the early Harry Potter films. And if I'm being ultra-critical then some of the other characters aren't as well defined as George Bailey but then again, that is who the film is about. But I still wanted to know more about Uncle Billy and his odd raven and other periphery characters. Hell, even Mr Potter warranted a little more screen time.
However, I am happy to concede that Mr Capra probably knew more about film-making than I do. There isn't a single fibre of my being that dislikes It's A Wonderful Life. Of course, it makes sense to watch it at Christmas time when it just becomes magical but is this any different to other Christmas movies - who watches Home Alone in summer or Miracle On 34th Street on the beach? But just because it is unashamedly festive doesn't reduce its appeal any. I just love it!
Should I Watch It?
It's A Wonderful Life stands head and shoulders above other festive flicks to become the definitive Christmas movie. It's a heart-warming, genuinely moving piece of cinema that becomes truly magical towards the end and frankly, it's almost impossible not to shed a tear during the final scene. Who cares if it is derivative or excessively syrupy—this is the ultimate Christmas film and that is the end of the discussion.
Great For: Christmas viewing, families, couples, depressives.
Not So Great For: bankers, summer holidays.
What Else Should I Watch?
There are a awful lot of Christmas movies out there and most of them are actually awful. Every year, junk like Deck The Halls or Santa With Muscles emerge like rotten corpses from freshly-dug graves to claw away any trace of festive spirit from unfortunate viewers. The aforementioned A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has been adapted for film more than twenty times, often under different names like Scrooged or even branding like A Muppets Christmas Carol which is surprisingly good.
However, there are a couple which stand out. I was pleasantly surprised by Elf which sees Will Ferrell's overgrown man-child leaving the North Pole to go to New York and reunite with his long-lost father. It lacks a certain magic but is entertaining enough to distract you from the fact that such a premise was probably around when Robin Williams was in his prime. I would also recommend Home Alone which never gets old as well as the off-beat musical The Nightmare Before Christmas, composed of catchy songs and stunning animation as well as some of the darker offerings from the mind of Tim Burton. But nothing can touch the brilliance of Capra's wonderful film.
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© 2017 Benjamin Cox