IT’S A WONDERFUL LAUGH! IT’S A WONDERFUL LOVE!
This Christmas I decided to catch Frank Capra’s last masterpiece again. Having seen it several times before, I knew what to expect. It’s a great story and I was instantly drawn into it once again. Still, I thought I was much too jaded, that I would resist crying in the final scenes. But there I was again, blubbering, as neighbors and friends poured into George Bailey’s home to help him out. I realized that the power of this film’s sentimentality just sweeps away any legitimate complaints about Capra’s penchant for simple clichés.
The story begins on Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls, New York, where the sheer amount and intensity of prayers for a man called George Bailey (James Stewart) reach Heaven. Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), an angel, is assigned his case, but before he heads to Earth he’s shown what George’s life looked like prior to this Christmas. In 1919, when George was 12, he saved the life of his younger brother Harry; he also managed to prevent a pharmacist from accidentally poisoning a child. George dreams of traveling all over the world, but constantly has to postpone those plans. At first, he has to help his father run the bank and when he dies from a stroke, George is the only successor.
He’s hoping for Harry to take some responsibility when he graduates from college… but the younger brother finds himself a wife and a father-in-law who offers him a great job opportunity. George can’t expect Harry to sacrifice that and assumes full ownership of the bank, knowing full well that this means that he’s trapped in Bedford Falls. Eventually, he marries the girl he’s loved since he was 21… but circumstances lead him on to a suicidal path on that Christmas Eve.
Reputation grew over the years
The story of It’s a Wonderful Life is quite remarkable. It had a modest box-office run, outcompeted by many other major releases at the time. It did however earn fine reviews and several Oscar nominations and its reputation only grew over the years. Eventually it became a Christmas institution on TV, a classic everybody had seen and knew by heart.
As the legend goes, Lionel Barrymore talked Stewart into making this movie, his first since serving in World War II. Apparently, Stewart had qualms about taking a part so soon after the war in a movie that included some aspects of it in the story. However, he delivers an exceptionally touching performance, underscoring the character flaws of George Bailey, a truly decent man who helps his community in every way possible and sacrifices every dream he’s ever had – and still thinks that he’s accomplished nothing, bitter as he remains about all the lost chances to see the world. Donna Reed, in her first major role, is breathtakingly beautiful as Mary, the girl who wins George’s heart; she has more than good looks though, and her performance is matched by Travers as the charming angel who needs to earn his wings, and Barrymore as the hopelessly Scrooge-like tycoon who’ll do anything to ruin the Baileys and any other goody two-shoes.
Now, if I were to revisit those “simple clichés” I mentioned earlier in the review, I’d have to include the cartoonish Potter who seems to live for creating misery in Bedford Falls… but I would also have to mention the fact that when the filmmakers picture an alternative, nightmarish vision of the town in the film’s second half the worst fate they can come up with for Mary is having her turn into a “spinster librarian”. Modern audiences are likely to find this more offensive than frightening.
Still, minor complaints when it comes to a movie this heartfelt. Sentimentality can kill a story… but not when those who create it genuinely believe in what they’re doing.
It’s a Wonderful Life 1946-U.S. 129 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay: Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling. Short Story: Philip Van Doren Stern (“The Greatest Gift”). Cinematography: Joseph Biroc, Joseph Walker. Editing: William Hornbeck. Cast: James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Henry Potter), Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi… Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson.
Trivia: Jean Arthur was allegedly considered for the part of Mary. Reworked as a TV movie, It Happened One Christmas (1977).
Golden Globe: Best Director.
Quote: “Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel’s just got his wings.” (Travers)
Last word: “For ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, Frank Capra hand-picked each person, including the 2,000 extras, but by this point I had already been in four films so I was an old hand at the auditions. He just said, ‘Now, show me how you would look if you had just lost your dog.’ I had to show him this expression and then a happy face and that was it. I was paid $75 a day for three weeks, which was a lot of money back then. Jimmy Stewart was just a delightful person. He was 6ft 4in and very skinny. To build a little chemistry between us he spent a lot of time with me, talking and playing. I once messed up a line and he said, ‘Th-th-that’s OK, Karol, you’ll get it right next time.’ And I did.” (Karolyn Grimes (who plays George’s daughter), The Telegraph)