#30 It’s A Wonderful Life

(1946, Frank Capra)

“You’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”

It’s A Wonderful Life is one of those films that keeps being repeated endlessly at Christmas, a staple for the holidays due to its message and the fact that events culminate on Christmas Eve. With exceptions, most Christmas movies tend to be overly sentimental mush with little redeeming value. Is Wonderful Life one of the exceptions, or is it a film worth avoiding when not unwrapping presents and stuffing yourself with turkey?

For anyone who tends to sleep through Christmas Day, the movie is about George Bailey (James Stewart), an upstanding fellow who is being prayed for one Christmas Eve because he is about to give up God’s greatest gift – life. But why would he do this? What follows is an examination of his life up that point, where his guardian angel appears to save his life and make him re-evaluate his importance by showing him what life would be like had he never been born.

It all sounds very sentimental, and essentially, it is. But Wonderful Life is more than just sentimental holiday fluff. Underneath all of it is an examination of the power of the individual, and the effect any one person can have on the people around them. By following his life, we see events first-hand before being properly shown their importance, and this makes the message all the more poignant.

For the first half of the movie, it’s biographical. Here is George Bailey, and this is his life, and what he did with it. No major pressures to make him seem important, we just sit back and get an insight into our character. And this is the film’s strength. We’re made to like George solely through his charming nature and by witnessing events that many of us may identify with, and thus as a result we identify with him too. He wants to travel, he flirts with a girl, he’s driven into taking on a job he doesn’t really want by a sense of duty. He’s an average man, and by spending this first hour with him, we learn a bit about him, meaning that when his breakdown happens, we sympathise with him, and when the revelations happen concerning his importance, it makes us as the audience contemplate our own importance in the grand scheme of things.

It helps that James Stewart plays him so well, and delivers fantastic dialogue with his co-stars, particularly with George’s wife, Mary (Donna Reed). The joking and flirting between the two is believable, and very funny. OK, due to the film’s age a few lines are a little cheesy or dated, but it ends up coming across as more charming than grating. It’s impressive that dialogue as old as this can still raise smiles all these years later.

On the negative side (I know, it’s Christmas, but the rules of the blog insist I find fault!) there is a certain sense of unfinished business about the whole thing. We know George wants to travel, and is broken up about not being able to do so due to taking over his father’s business and starting a family, but no closure is given over whether or not he’ll ever get to achieve this goal, giving a message that it’s better to give up your dreams and do your duty than to be happy. It almost states that personal happiness and happiness through helping others are entirely separate things that cannot exist together. While it’s possible that this was never Frank Capra’s intention, it certainly reads that way.

Also, the villainous miser Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) never really gets an ending. The film builds him up to receive some retribution for all the cruel things he’s done, but he just gets forgotten at the end of the movie. A little bit of punishment or karma would have been nice, particularly as it is his actions that push George to breaking point.

But overall, it’s still a truly heartfelt movie that is actually so much more than a holiday favourite. It’s no A Christmas Carol, but it’s definitely up there.

Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Gloria Grahame & Henry Travers
Written by Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett
Produced by Frank Capra
Music score by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography by Joseph Walker
Edited by William Hornbeck

Favourite Scene: Every moment of George and Mary’s walk home from his brother’s graduation party is entertaining, and is the first demonstration of the chemistry between the leads
Scene That Bugged Me: Not a scene, but the line “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings”. The film itself does point out the absurdity of the concept in the same scene, although it then has to go and play the whole thing straight again at the end of the film.

Watch it if: It’s on TV this Xmas, which it inevitably will be
Avoid it if: You’re sick of festive favourites

Originally posted on Blogspot Xmas Eve 2011

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Posted on April 11, 2012, in 1940s, Comedy, Drama and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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