Christmas movies don't arrive any more beloved or moving than Frank Capra's 1946 classic, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Almost 80 years after its release, none of the holiday magic has faded, thanks to Jimmy Stewart and an amazing cast.
Stewart stars as local boy George Bailey, who can't wait to get out of tiny Bedford Falls and see the world. We watch his early years unfold via some sparkling stars in the cosmos, who share Bailey's life story with Clarence (Henry Travers) an angel hoping to earn his wings by coming down to Earth and helping George on one dark & fateful night.
What surprised me on my first viewing of the film years ago, was just how dark some of its moments are. Suicide is pondered and lives seem torn apart.
Frank Capra's genius with films like "It Happened One Night"(1934), "Lost Horizon" (1937) and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) was an uncanny ability to mix comedy, drama and unabashed patriotism, without shying away from life's life & death moments.
This was Capra's first post-WWII film and he's clearly committed to showing the goodness in all of us after the human terrors of the war. But you can't show good without showing the bad and boy, does Mr. Potter, the owner of the town bank exemplify that category. Mean-spirited, ruthless and uncaring, Potter is out to destroy the smaller Savings and Loan that George'e father built from scratch. George shares his father's traits as a generous man more concerned with his customers than himself, which isn't a great business plan, but certainly serves to set up a terrific payoff. Lionel Barrymore is despicable as Mr. Potter. He was the Grinch before Dr. Seuss invented him, sneering and laughing at everyone he takes advantage of in the town.
Bedford Falls is loaded with great characters and superb actors playing them.
Donna Reed is fantastic as Mary, the girl George courts and eventually marries. The early scenes of them just out of high school are hilarious. Stewart is the perfect every-man and Reed matches his charm.
Sara Edwards is hilarious as Mrs. Hatch, Mary's Mom who wants her to marry anyone but George. Thomas Mitchell is fine as Uncle Harry, providing plenty of laughs along with some strong dramatic moments that set up the finale.
The film was not a hit when it was released but it eventually gained a huge following. It was aired many times by public broadcasting channels during the Christmas season in the 70's, where it became an annual tradition for many families in America.
The story is timeless and Stewart is fantastic, morphing from a gee-whiz student getting ready for college, to a businessman trying to save his town. He's the perfect actor for Capra's inspirational speeches, firing up his customers like the pre-battle Mel Gibson in "Braveheart". But it's in the film's dramatic moments that Stewart really shines. His desperation holding his son tight to him as his world spins out of control grabs you by the throat.
No matter how many Christmas seasons that I revisit it, the last 15 minutes still inspire and move me as George's generosity of spirit comes back to him ten-fold.
There are riches beyond the obvious to unwrap here upon repeat viewings.
The script is witty and smart, with screenwriters Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus), Clifford Odets (Sweet Smell of Success) and the legendary Dorothy Parker all offering uncredited contributions to the screenplay.
While it was made in the 40's, it's takes on love, sex and society are sharply observed in a mode that's less graphic but no less telling. Stewart and Reed are flat out hilarious in the screwball comedy sections sprinkled between the drama.
We unwrap IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE every year. It's a gift that keeps on giving as it approaches 100 years old.
Listen for the bells, this Christmas classic just got its wings and an A+.