Monday, August 20, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Francis Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Gloria Grahame
(130 minutes, B&W)

It is quite possibly an error that It's a Wonderful Life is labeled as a Christmas movie.  Certainly the most pivotal action of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, and the movie's final heartwarming image occurs in front of a glistening, decorated pine.  However, the movie tackles issues that aren't exclusive to the holiday season; the angst and depression over our day-to-day lives that seem oh so mediocre is something most people deal with every day.

What if I could have done things differently?
What if I could change the past?
Why does my life matter?

George and Clarence
Capra's It's a Wonderful Life finds a unique and innovative way to tackle those big questions in the form of an angel from heaven sent to help a man on the verge of suicide.  For the majority of the movie, the angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) looks back on the life of the man, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, in his most iconic performance).  Born into a small town with humble beginnings, George always seems to be pulling up the short straw.  He goes deaf in one ear after saving his brother from falling through a frozen pond, he never makes it to college, his dreams of world-wide travel fall incredibly short, and he eventually inherits his father's small business, something he actively resisted early on.

George always has a choice in these matters, but the fact that he keeps putting others before himself shows two traits that are most important in the movie, and to Capra: generosity and humility.  George doesn't go to college because he wants his brother to use the money instead, and he inherits his father's Building and Loan because he fears for the people who might lose their homes if the business falls through.  No matter how tough things get or how tired his life becomes, the audience always sympathizes with George and appreciates the fact that he is a good man.  This is due in no small part to Stewart's performance.  He molds George into an extraordinarily normal individual, yet also embeds him with such a spirit of grace that every audience member holds him up as an ideal, and envies his integrity.

Capra's movies are famous for their morals and unabashed sentimentality.  Most of them are stories about a single man up against the system, or a small band of honest men working to prove the value of their ideals.  Most directors would go overboard with the values and sink their film with a morality lesson, however, Capra doesn't even toe the line.  His movies, this one especially, reflect the talent of an individual who could move and teach audiences without preaching to them.  Everyone in this movie has something good or redeeming about them, but they are not caricatures.  Capra simply digs deep into every character with sympathy and honesty, painting well-rounded portraits as opposed to superficial characterizations and snap-shot portraits.  Even the greatest cynic will have his heart warmed by the end of this movie, because its message is so universal.

It's a Wonderful Life is as much a film for the supporting actors as it is the star.  Donna Reed, who plays George's wife Mary, must be one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen.  Her character is totally devoted to George, and the audience is totally devoted to her.  When George becomes depressed and impenetrable, she serves as the audience's bridge to him.  Mary always understands him.  Lionel Barrymore turns in another one of the movie's most memorable performances, as the town's financial magnate Mr. Potter, enemy to both George and his father.  Mr. Potter runs his own financial loan company that makes money from collecting ridiculous insurance from the shacks it leases to clients.  The Bailey Building and Loan is a direct threat to his business, and the selfish and twisted Potter goes to great lengths to ruin and even corrupt the Baileys.  However, Barrymore brings something rare to the character: a touch, just a touch, of sympathy.  Potter's actions in the film are deplorable, but it is through Barrymore's performance that we are able to see him for what he is: a lonely man.  At the end, we even sense that there might be some redemption for him.
George and Mary dance.

The movie's most famous plot point comes when Clarence's observation of George ends and he appears to George on Earth, saving him from suicide but fulfilling George's strange request: a wish that he had never been born.  Clarence is able to take George back through his supposedly meaningless life to see everyone and everything that he has impacted.  In the world without George, his brother died after falling through the ice.  An old druggist friend went to jail because a teenage George was unable to save him from making a grave mistake.  Mary is an old maid, and Potter owns the town, where all of George's friends reside in cheap tenements.

You will find that most movies with a scene of that fame lack other strong plot lines.  Once you see It's a Wonderful Life, however, you recognize countless scenes and lines of dialogue that will forever stick in your mind.  There is the comical scene where George and Mary, still dating, cheerfully and obliviously Charleston their way into the high school swimming pool and afterwards stroll through the neighborhood in bathrobes while singing "Buffalo Girls."  A later scene before their wedding is so romantically charged that the chemistry between Stewart and Reed is palpable and a joy to feel.  Their touching honeymoon takes place in a massive, very wet house that puts the phrase "fixer-upper" to shame.  The movie's finest image is, of course, the final one, with George and his loving family and friends singing "Auld Lang Syne" on a blessed Christmas Eve.

This is the type of movie that sticks with you your entire life.  There are so many films that are "great" but aren't endearing.  We're asked to see them simply because they're historical, or hold high artistic merit.  I appreciate innovation as much as, probably more, than the next guy, but seeing a movie simply because I'm told it's "great" feels hollow.  There's got to be something more there.  A soul.  It's a Wonderful Life is an abnormality: a movie that is great because of how endearing it is.  Of course it's a well-made movie, but no more well-made than many others.  The reason it's more famous today than when released is because of the unique place it holds in the heart of its viewers.  Even thinking about this movie, it's like I'm instantly in my family room with my parents and brothers, a fire burning, watching Jimmy Stewart on the small 22x22 inch screen.

It's a Wonderful Life is a beautiful movie for Christmas, but it shouldn't just be restricted to that category.  Surprisingly, when it was released, it was a commercial disappointment and did little to boost Capra's career.  Passing into public domain was a mixed blessing.  It renewed the movie's popularity and launched it as a Christmas classic, but also made it susceptible to the wiles of Ted Turner and his infamous colorization. It's a Wonderful Life is a classic example against the colorizing of movies.  The movie's rich black and white photography is gorgeous, but the colorization (which Capra lobbied against on his deathbed) looks like vomit from a baby who has eaten too many mushy vegetables.  Jimmy Stewart remarked that the colorized movie made him "feel sick."  Indeed, if the movie is to be enjoyed, it must be in its original, perfected, form.

To close this piece, I must steal a story that I learned from Roger Ebert.  Apparently at a seminar with some film students in the 70s, Capra was asked if it was still possible to make a movie with the ideals and values found in It's a Wonderful Life.  "Well, if there isn't," Capra replied.  "We might as well give up."  It's a Wonderful Life exemplifies the wonderful creativity, inspiration, and timelessness that movies can have when they are at their best.

It's a Wonderful Life is unrated by the MPAA, and contains nothing objectionable for children.  It's inspirational and meaningful, truly family entertainment at its best.

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