It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
It's a Wonderful Movie
You see George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away? - Clarence
"Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings" so goes the famous quote from one of the most famous Christmas movies of all time, yes Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" starring James Stewart and Donna Reed a movie that for me and many others is a festive favourite. But why would a sentimental, black & white movie from the 1940's, and trust me the black & white version of "It's a Wonderful Life" is better than the colorized version, still appeal to so many people? The answer for me is quite simple, "It's a Wonderful Life" has that feel good factor which leaves you feeling happy and positive about life, no matter if you watch it at Christmas or in the summer.
George Bailey (James Stewart - Pot o' Gold) is a man who gave up on his dream of leaving Bedford Falls to travel and instead stayed to keep the family Buildings & Loans business running and out of the hands of unscrupulous local businessman Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). But when one Christmas Eve Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) manages to lose a large sum of business money, George finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place, either selling out to Potter or prison for financial irregularities. With the pressure mounting George decides to take his own life only to be saved by a guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers - Shadow of a Doubt) who gives him a look at what life would have been like for his friends & family if he had never existed.
"It's a Wonderful Life" adapted from the novel "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, basically follows the life of selfless George Bailey as his life fails to turn out how he planned and he eventually faces ruin through no fault of his own. With elements of humour, romance as well as dark drama, the story masterfully carries you on a journey as you become involved in this troubled life, empathising with the emotions George encounters as he sees how important he is by seeing what would have happened if he had never existed.
The story itself is cleverly constructed as the movie starts with the angels above being alerted to George Bailey's state of despair from the numerous prayers raised up from his friends and family, where upon they decide to send angel Clarence to show him what life would have been like for his nearest and dearest with out him. But before they do so, we get the first major section of "It's a Wonderful Life", which takes us through George's life from childhood right up until the point where he is contemplating taking his own life. To be honest this, section takes up the majority of the movie, probably at least two thirds and really takes us on a journey where we watch George slowly change from being full of life and dreams to a man beaten down with the burdens, responsibility and work. It is one of the reasons why "It's a Wonderful Life" still remains popular because so many people understand what it is like to see there dreams melt way under the daily toil of life.
The second major part of the story is where George gets to see what life would be like for his friends and family if he had never existed and this is the point where his guardian angel, Clarence appears. Again this whole element ties in to the thoughts and feelings of many people who at times have wondered if friends and family would have been better off if they had never existed. Of course, this is where the movie is most powerful as it goes on to demonstrate the important contributions which George has made in the lives of all his friends and family, providing a truly uplifting, feel good element to the story.
What is quite surprising is that considering that "It's a Wonderful Life" is classed as being a Christmas classic there is very little mention of Christmas during it. With the majority of the movie covering the life of George Bailey, the only mention of Christmas comes from the fact that George reaches the height of his despair just around the Christmas period. Another quite surprising fact is that most people think of "It's a Wonderful Life" as being a light hearted feel good movie, but in fact it has quite a lot of dark undertones to it. The most notable darkness comes from the fact that George Bailey is contemplating suicide, but also the movie shows us how the burden of his life was slowly beating him down.
Now although "It's a Wonderful Life" features the impeccable talents of such stars as Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Donna Reed, it is without doubt the casting of James Stewart as George Bailey that has helped to make it such a popular movie. Not only is Stewart absolutely brilliant at providing the light hearted fun side of George Bailer, but his ability to demonstrate the emotions of a man as he becomes depressed and desperate is truly exceptional. One of the most powerful scenes comes when George returns home after finding out about the loss of the funds and you watch him sit there holding one of his children as you can see the despair coursing through his eyes as he tries to figure out a solution, truly magnificent acting.
Of course one actor can not make a movie, and the aforementioned Lionel Barrymore puts in a great performance as the miserly old business man Henry F. Potter. You can really feel that his motivation in life is the love of money and his apparent willingness to manipulate the system whether legally or illegally to get what he wants. Some people would call the character a real Scrooge, which would be quite appropriate as Lionel Barrymore regularly played the character of Scrooge in radio broadcast of the classic "A Christmas Carol", for once a very good piece of type casting. Also making the movie so enjoyable is the lovely Donna Reed as George's wife Mary. Again, I can not fault Reed's performance or characterization of Mary as you really get the feeling that all she wants is to have a happy family and that she truly does love and care for her husband.
It is testament to how popular "It's a Wonderful Life" is that the characters Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street were actually named after the characters Police officer Bert and taxi driver Ernie who are both minor but very entertaining characters in the movie and well played by Ward Bond and Frank Faylen.
"It's a Wonderful Life" is directed by one of the most popular directors of the golden era, Frank Capra and some would say it was his finest movie, even though it was a complete box office failure when it was first released. What is quite amazing is that for a movie which was made over 60 years ago it does not feel technically inferior to today's mega dollar movies, which can be solely put down to Capra's masterful direction. Not only that, Capra brilliantly holds your attention through out the movie and his ability to build atmosphere through direction really helps to convey the story.
What this all boils down to is that I absolutely adore "It's a Wonderful Life" a classic movie no matter what time of the year I watch it, although it does give you that extra special tingly feeling when you watch it during Christmas. Although it is heavily sentimental and paints a rather fake picture of the perfect American way of life, it does so to achieve the desired effect of delivering what is truly an exceptional feel good movie. Also making this so special is the brilliant acting from James Stewart, as well as Lionel Barrymore and Donna Reed who really bring all their characters to life. Out of all the Christmas movies you can watch and own, "It's a Wonderful Life" is the one which I would truly recommend above all others.
Tags: Christmas Movies
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