It’s A Wonderful Life
US (1946) Dir. Frank Capra
Confession time: despite this being an all time classic that regularly appears near the top of every “Greatest Ever Films” poll and is as much a pre-requisite at Christmas as turkey and presents, this is my first time viewing this film. I know, that is regarded as heresy for a film buff but I’m sure we all have some skeletons in our film viewing closets.
As we all know the plot revolves around a man named George Bailey (James Stewart) who has reached the end of his tether on Christmas Eve after a life time of doing everything for the people of his home town of Bedford Falls. With his family business on the brink of collapse and a possible jail term staring him in the face, George decides the best thing for his family is to disappear for good.
As his friends and family all pray to a higher power to give George a break, an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his wings, is sent down to talk George out of killing himself by showing him what life in Bedford falls would have been like had he not existed.
By the time this film arrived in 1946, Frank Capra had already built himself a reputation as one of Hollywood’s top directors, having conquered Tinsel Town with such notable hits as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1938) which also starred James Stewart. However it is this bittersweet Christmas tale, based on the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, that remains his most regarded and enduring and influential work – often imitated but never duplicated – which surprisingly was not a box office hit.
The story is actually much deeper than any synopsis suggests, with the bulk of the 130 minute run time spent looking back over George’s life, by way of an introduction for Clarence to his client. George is a good guy even from his early days, demonstrated when as young boy he lost the hearing in his left ear after saving his younger brother Harry from drowning. Later on he stops his drugstore boss Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from accidentally poisoning a customer.
When he turned 21 George was about to go college then travel around the world but the death of his father (Samuel S. Hinds) placing him in charge of their loan business Building and Loan, putting him at odds with the majority shareholder and local moneybags Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a grizzled and self-centred old man with a long standing grudge against the Bailey family.
Clarence doesn’t appear until the third act by which time, George has married his childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed), had four kids and made many sacrifices to keep the business alive. Meanwhile everyone else has achieved the one thing that George always dreamed of: leaving Bedford Falls and seeing the world.
Younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) becomes a war hero while best friend Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) makes his fortune in plastics, an investment opportunity George turned down! Via duplicity and pernicious manipulation Potter holds George accountable over the absence of $8000 from the company books, pushing him to his wits end. This leads to the Scrooge-esque travel to an alternate reality to help snap George out of his depressive and fatalistic funk.
Admittedly this doesn’t sound like the recipe for a feelgood Christmas movie – then again neither does A Christmas Carol – although the Christmas aspect is only pertinent for the finale rather than the plot as a whole, fundamentally making this is a film for all seasons, even though it seems to have latched onto the Christmas TV schedule (especially in the US) so it has morphed into a “Christmas film”.
Everything else is universal in its themes, with the main moral of the story appearing to reinforce the old adage about nice guys finishing last. And for the most part this is the case until the final act flips the whole story on its head to deliver the now iconic happy ending to stop us from joining George from jumping off that bridge.
With years of hype behind this film prior to my seeing it, I had a concern I may not enjoy it or understand why it has become such an evergreen treasure for film buffs. Thankfully I needn’t have been concerned. Firstly the story is so incredibly well crafted, almost ahead of its time, and has a timeless core idea that it could have been set in any timeframe (but don’t tell Hollywood that – we don’t need a modern remake thank you!), making it so relatable to any generation.
Secondly Frank Capra clearly has a vision beyond that of any other director of the time you care to name to make this work as a whimsical piece of comedy drama, giving equal weight to both facets rather than pandering to one over the other for commercial appeal.
Thirdly – James Stewart. Could anyone else have taken the role? Cary Grant? Spencer Tracy? Clark Gable? James Cagney? Stewart has a difficult character to inhabit with so many layers to him. Aside from expecting us to believe that the then 38 year-old Stewart was a 21 year old student in the first act (yes really!), his performance is flawless and imbued with the requisite sense of humanity and humility, attacking the role with a perceptive energy and commitment required for such a character that is rarely off screen.
He is supported by some of the finest character actors of the time, headed by the legendary Lionel Barrymore, who is almost Churchillian in his portrayal as the malevolent antagonist Mr. Potter.
So, is It’s A Wonderful Life worthy of the high esteem, lofty plaudits and classic status in which it revels? Quite simply – yes! I’m just kicking myself for having waited so long to see it!