Classic Movie Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Posted: December 28, 2013 in Comedy, Drama, Romance
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its a wonderful life

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is an average man, unremarkable in every way, except for the small acts of kindness that changed the lives of his friends and family forever.  By the time he was a teen, George had already saved the lives of his brother Harry (Todd Karms) and prevented his boss Mr. Gower,(H.B Warner) a druggist, from poisoning on of his clients. George wants to travel and see the world, but things keep bringing him back to Bedford Falls.   George is in love with his high school sweetheart, Mary Hatch.(Donna Reed)  and just as he is set to leave Bedford Falls, his father, Peter, (Samuel S. Hinds) owner of a building and loan has a stroke, and passes away.

George doesn’t want to stay in Bedford Falls, but he doesn’t want the building and loan dissolved and the assets sold to Mr. Potter, (Lionel Barrymore) a bitter old robber baron, who owns every other asset in town.  George stays in town, deferring his dreams again.  He marries Mary, puts his brother through college, and continues to run the building and loan.  George survives the depression, by spending his honeymoon money on his customers, in the middle of a bank run and keeps the doors open with two dollars to spare.  Harry comes back from college, and doesn’t taker the building and loan.  By this time George has resigned himself to running the building and loan with his uncle Billy. (Thomas Mitchell)

George starts to flourish, building little homes and taking business away from Mr. Potter.  Potter is so impressed with George’s business acumen that he offers George a job, which George considers, but turns down flat.  Things are looking up for George, Harry comes back a war hero, and the building and loan is going well, but then disaster strikes, on Christmas Eve when Uncle Billy loses 8,000 dollars in the bank while trying to make a deposit.  A bank examiner is lurking, and ever-forgetful Billy has no idea where he left the money.  Things look bleak, and then a mysterious man named Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) intervenes in the suicide attempt.  Who is Clarence?  Does he help George realize that his life has worth?

I love It’s a Wonderful Life, and the assumption is that I love it because of its saccharine sweetness, and the fact that I’s played every Christmas.  Let me disabuse people who haven’t seen this movie, it is not a syrupy sweet movie filled with do-gooders.  After Billy loses the money, George Bailey, soft-spoken paragon of the community, tears into Uncle Billy, and his be screams at his beloved wife and kids.  And if that isn’t depressing enough, George contemplates suicide.  As soon as Clarence appears, the movie gets even darker.  Mr. Gower’s a drunk, Mary’s a spinster librarian, none of George’s friends know him, and even his mother doesn’t recognize him.  And Mr. Potter is consistently dark and dour, and never even tries

The reason I like this movie is George is an everyman, he does so much to help his friends and neighbors, and he doesn’t want any reward, he’s just George Bailey being George Bailey, doing his job living his life the way his father raised him to live, never getting tired of doing the right thing.  He is a banker, who actually tries to help the common man, against the monopolistic Mr. Potter.  Can you imagine making a holiday classic about a banker these days?  With too-big-to-fail conglomerates like Citibank, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo, the kindly neighborhood banker wouldn’t fly today.

It’s a Wonderful Life is religious, but in a subtle way.  George wants to wipe the dust of Bedford Falls from his shoes, that’s Jesus’ advice to his disciples, if a town does not welcome them.  When Harry comes home, George says their mother is “cooking the fatted lamb” a reference to the prodigal son.  And Potter’s properties are called Potter’s field, a reference to the burial site bought by Jewish priests with Judas’ 30 silver coins.  The ending is much more secular and humanistic than most people want to admit.

The acting is superb.  Jimmy Stewart is the personification of this role.  Small town boy who has big dreams but circumstances and a sense of responsibility keep him tethered to his hometown.  It is an incredible performance, Stewart plays average small town guy one minute and the next, everything comfortable and familiar has been taken away from him, and the viewer can see the panic etched on Stewart’s face.  It is not an easy transition to make, and Stewart makes it like turning on a light switch.  The anger and frustration inherent in Stewart’s character comes as easily to Stewart as his joviality, and the ease with which Stewart plays both the comedic side and the dark side, makes this a magnificent performance.   I heard Cary Grant was cast for this, and when Frank Capra took over the project, he re-wrote the part for Stewart.  I like Cary Grant, he’s a great actor, but way too sophisticated for the small-town George Bailey.

Donna Reed gives a luminous performance, when she is happy and in love, it is like she is lit up from within, she is totally besotted with George, and it shows.  Stewart and Reed have many comedic scenes together, and she is the perfect foil for Stewart, with perfect comedic timing. When she is conflicted her face shows that angst.  This performance is all the more amazing because it is her first role.  Lionel Barrymore is perfect as the warped bitter, old business tycoon, who only loves money and will do anything to get more.  He sneers his way through the whole movie, never giving the viewer a chance to wonder how the old man got so twisted. There is a great ensemble cast and they are the unsung stars of this movie.

The writing by Frank Capra, and others is the perfect blend of happiness, darkness and pathos.  It is one of the few movies that makes me cry, I’m not saying tears, I’m talking about uncontrollable bawling.  It doesn’t matter how many times I see it, or when, it still affects me.  There are some stereotypes , like the black housekeeper, or the Italian family with the large number of kids, but the stereotypes are minor and more a statement of the time period, than anything harmful.

The direction is stylistically pleasing too, for example when the movie turns dark thematically, the faces seem darker, the music is more dramatic. At the moment the conflict resolves itself, the whole town changes, and the lighting changes too.   The glowing look on Donna Reed’s face is Capra’s doing too, he was probably using soft lighting whenever she was alone in the frame.  It made Donna Reed look more appealing.

It’s A Wonderful Life.  Life affirming.

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