It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Oh yes, here we go–R.C. is reviewing It’s a Wonderful Life, another Frank Capra movie and we just know he’s going to love it. No, I’d never seen it before–really. As I watched I knew I had not, in fact, seen anything more than a famous shot from the end that plays on a television in Gremlins (a more constantly viewed film for me) and probably some other movies as well. I decided Christmas Eve was the time to see it, so that’s when I watched it. I did not watch the colourized version, though I have heard that it is pretty decently done–and so I may get around to it sometime. Most of you (by which I mean everyone in the world other than myself) probably know the plot better than I do, but I find comfort in familiar formatting so I’m still going to give a synopsis next.

Angels, portrayed as literal celestial bodies (one unnamed, voiced by Moroni Olsen and the other named as Joseph, voiced by Joseph Granby-with neither originally credited) discuss the fate of one George Bailey, determining that the as-yet-wingless Clarence Odbody (voiced, and later played, by Henry Travers) should be sent to help him. First, though, they show him the life of Bailey (played as a youth by Robert J. Anderson), saving the life of his younger brother Harry (Georgie Nokes) from near-drowning, losing hearing in his left ear in the process. He shows great compassion for his employer Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), who is stricken with grief after the death of his son, when he prevents him filling a prescription with a fatal alternative, and then the senior angels show Clarence more of his life as a man, now preparing to go to college before he takes on his dreams of architecture and world-traveling. A stroke that hits his father (Samuel S. Hinds) brings Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) more sharply into the role of antagonist, where previously he had just been a bit of a jerk,* but now sees the chance to shut down George’s father’s building and loan, continuing his financial takeover of their town of Bedford Falls. George takes a stand in the boardroom against Potter and the board ropes him into heading the group instead, leaving George to sacrifice his plans for the good of the town, though this does put him in place to interact more with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who loves George and has done since they were children. Still, Harry (the older version played by Todd Karns) is given George’s college money and goes off to school–and then on his return, he brings his new wife Ruth (Virginia Patton) with him, whose father has given him a job that prevents him from taking over the Building and Loan, so George remains tied to it. It’s a struggle as the depression comes on and George finds himself stuck when a bank examiner visits and $8,000 disappears. He begs even the vile Potter for help, but when he is told that he’s worth more dead than alive, he takes the words to heart (and financially, they’re true) and decides to leap off a bridge–which is where Clarence makes his appearance.

This movie plays annually, though I have no idea where or when (exactly–Eve? Day? Time on whichever day?), as I’ve never seen it do so. I sat down and watched it with my father, who had seen no Capra before it and has always loved it (making him more curious about the colourized version, but I didn’t want to spoil the original before I’d even seen it). I’ve seen a handful of other Capra films prior (and reviewed all five of the ones I have seen) and so I did see this one with a frame of reference, unlike, I think, most people seeing it. It’s the third one I’ve seen with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role, though, and I think I’ve got enough of a background now to say that I have that frame of reference and it’s worth something. I’ve also talked before about how little I concern myself with the “schmaltz” aspect associated with Capra’s work. As I’ve said before, Capra knows how to work sentiment and keep it ringing clear and true, never false. If you go in with a cynical sneer (which some think I wear 24/7, but they are mistaken, and if they get to know me they eventually realize this) you will probably not enjoy yourself, but I’d actually hope that it would be wiped from your face, and even believe it might, unless you’re dead set against it.

Jimmy Stewart mentions the role of George Bailey as one of his favourites (if not THE favourite) of all time, and it’s a brilliant one. It’s rare for him to be asked to cover both ends of the spectrum of performance, usually either relegated to the stoic and dramatic or the comedic and heartwarming, the good soul he’s usually identified as. George Bailey, though, covers both ends readily. Through much of the film he sacrifices and sacrifices but maintains a happy face, a smile that is at least across his face if not his mouth, and a certain lightness to his bearing. When things turn south beyond voluntary sacrifice, George’s stress of years spent in service of others breaks him, quite believably. George is not perfect, nor does he become a complete ghoul. When things go wrong he does verbally abuse his loved ones, from his uncle Billy (who’s played by Thomas Mitchell) on to his own four children. He has no patience and mutters and scowls, he curses and questions and generally has no patience for anything. But he doesn’t blame anyone else or pitch a fit about all the things he’s done for others. He does willingly ask Potter to spare him his dooming fate as left by the circumstances that have brought him so low, but never by trying to leverage his own actions. He only offers more of himself to take himself–and thus his family–out of the frying pan. When he tells Clarence the world would be better off if he’d never been born, we know he believes it, that he is in fact a good and decent soul and does not think anything more of his kind acts throughout his life than that they are the actions he should have taken regardless, not something to be lorded over others as a great part of his own character. Stewart manages this impeccably, and we’re never left feeling George is egocentric nor ungrateful. Certainly he doesn’t recognize his own value, but he doesn’t truly devalue anyone else–yet at the same time he pulls no punches when the chips are not only down but gone.

I’m not sure how much more there is to say of a movie that ranks so highly with the public and critics, that is so entrenched in the public lexicon (even if that is because it’s public domain), that hasn’t already been said. It’s touching and it’s funny, it’s charming and heartwarming, but it does all of these things, as only Capra can do, without clubbing us in the face with any of them. The characters are strong and real in a theatrical way and we want the best for them and laugh and cry with them, and it all just works as it does in Capra films. It’s a shame that sentimentality has been made a dirty word for film by those who abuse it, when those who could use it, like Capra, made films that stand up now with no concern despite their age.

On a final note–the morons at Paramount who assembled the two-disc version I own and viewed apparently can’t comprehend the film’s buying audience, advertising, of all things, nothing but the Queen Latifah remake of The Last Holiday. Really? A remake of a classic Alec Guinness film from 1950 on a DVD for a 1946 black and white classic? Who thought that made any kind of sense? (Of course, I have bigger issues with the fact that that film was made in America, where “holiday” doesn’t even mean the same thing anyway, thus making the title very silly).

*This word was removed from the film by censors. No, really. Also: “lousy,” and “dang.”

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