Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) (Movie Review)

     It’s been celebrated as one of the greatest holiday classics of all time, and yet … upon my first viewing, I didn’t really see it as a Christmas movie at all ... more like a phenomenal movie that deserves to be viewed year-round. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not a box office success upon it’s initial release, but its legacy has sense skyrocketed. It went from being a staple in the category of film Drama’s, to one of the most annually re-watched movies around Christmas, and has sense been labeled a motion picture masterpiece. I was first introduced to the film way back in my early high-school years, and at that time I only cared about senseless action and mindless comedy. My first viewing was in a film class, and I’ll never forget this incredibly profound feeling it left me with, like it opened my eyes to what a truly great movie really is. At the time, it was also a much-needed lesion for me on how to look at life in general. It’s one thing to praise a movie for being a timeless classic, and another for a film to make a personal connection with me, which has lasted through all the years sense I first viewed it.  

   This is the timeless story about how one man’s ordinary life could have such a huge impact on the lives of others, which is just as inspiring as it is enduring. George Bailey was a young man with great ambitions, to leave his quite little home town of Bedford Falls, be a worldwide explorer, and a famous building architect. Unfortunately, after the sudden passing of his father, responsibility falls on him to run the families banking business, and keep it from falling in the hands of a local “fat cat” named Henry Potter, who’s on the verge of putting a monopoly on the town. Over the years, George’s contributions to both the family business, and the town at large have gained him great respect. George however takes little content in his life, as he’s stuck at home, unable to pursue his dreams, and just doesn’t feel like he’s amounting to anything. Then one Christmas Eve, a disaster accusers in which a large sum of money accidentally goes missing, and the blame falls on Georges shoulders. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as he slips into despair and contemplates suicide. Luck would have it that his guardian angel appears to take stock, and show him the value of his life. How dose he accomplish this … by taking him on a tour of the life around him, but in the context that he never existed. 

     In many respects, “It’s a Wonderful Life” could be viewed as the spiritual successor to the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”. Both revolve around a man who’s lost his way, goes on a spiritual journey through life with a figurative spirit guide, and emerges a new man with new found appreciation for the world around him. 
While “A Christmas Carol” dose a better job getting me in the mood for the holiday, I think “It’s a Wonderful Life” has a more universal appeal that can resonate with a wider audience. In other words, I think just about anyone can watch this movie, regardless of religion, or what holiday they celebrate, and still gain something from it. The character of George Bailey is a great example of someone who sets goals and a direction for themselves. In general, I think it’s very important to set goals for yourself to reach or succeed in. However, it’s the message of appreciating one’s life, and how everyone’s life has value that really resonates with me the most. Not everyone is lucky or fortunate enough to live their dreams or ambitious, which is why it’s important to make the most of each day in our own ways, weather that be a humble day’s work, or time spent with the family … the sky is the limit for what you can do to make the most of yourself. That’s why I don’t view this as a strictly Christmas oriented movie, in truth I prefer watching this film on Thanksgiving, a time to reflect on what I’m grateful for, and then it segues nicely into Christmas. Having said that, the film certainly has its appeal’s that get me in the mood for Christmas. The opening title card sequence has the credits appearing on decorative Christmas cards, which was very appropriate as it was nine lines on a Christmas greeting card that inspired screen writer Philip Van Doren Stern. In 1943, Stern wrote a short story called “The Greatest Gift”, which would become the base point for “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Frank Capra took inspiration from it and signed on to direct the picture, and the rest is history.

     Frank Capra was already a titan in the film industry, and had it not been for his direction, I don’t think the movie would be as entertaining as it is. For an old 1940’s picture, the film has a lot of energy, and each scene builds with a level of excitement. Half of the energy is sustained through the editing and clever scene transitions. Although, it’s also fun to point out little flubs along the way. 

One little detail that always stood out is a scene in which George sets down a Christmas wreath to answer a phone call, and then in a rough edit, the wreath is instantly back around his arm. Another thing I love about Capra’s direction is that he fills each scene with a lot of buzz and activity, so it always gives the audience something to look at. He also gives individual scenes some personality, so they’ll leave more of an impact. George and his girl friend Mary have a romantic walk through the neighborhood, and to add some flavor, there’s a guy on his porch getting agitated that George doesn’t just come out and confess his feelings already. Then the scene gets even more fun as Mary accidentally looses her robe, hides behind a bush, and George just plays around with her a little. That’s what I love about this movie, as it’s mainly a drama, but it’s not afraid to have some fun with itself. It’s also just the right amount of fun, and it can transition into the more serious moments smoothly without feeling tonally offbeat. I should note that this film also features my all-time favorite kiss ever shared on screen, not so much for how it was framed, but for the buildup leading into that kiss, as it gets me smiling and laughing every time. Of course, Frank Capra also knows how to highlight the heavier moments. When George is stuck in the alternate world in which he never existed, there’s a very intense close up of his eyes as he looks around in disbelief, and it’s really effective.   

     The other half of the films energy comes from the relentless commitment of the cast, and how they make every character feel as real as possible.
Donna Reed just warms the heart as Georges wife Mary, Thomas Mitchell is very charismatic as the loony Uncle Billy, and Henry Travers is infectiously lovable as George’s Guardian Angel Clarence. Lionel Barrymore is also disgustingly wicked as Henry Potter. When it comes to really nasty characters that I love to hate, this is one of the first that comes to mind. Without question, it’s James Stewart in the leading role of George Bailey who makes this film soar. He rightfully got an Oscar nomination for best actor, and it’s my favorite performance in his long-standing career. James Stewart and director Frank Capra already had a history collaborating on films together, in fact they earlier joined talents in another one of my favorite movie dramas from 1939 titled “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, so they were already a powerhouse match. Ironically, James Stewart was also in a movie titled “It’s a Wonderful World”, which sounds eerily similar to this film, but that was more of a screw-ball comedy. There was also something of an Urban Legend that the characters Bert the cop and Ernie the cabdriver are what inspired the names of Bert and Ernie on “Sesame Street”, although the creators have openly stated it was just a coincidence. I was personally more amused that one of the character’s names is “Potter”, and another character is named “Harry”.

     One thing that may have a slightly negative impact on new viewers is the abundance of films and TV shows that have either spoofed it, or in the case of something like “Click” blatantly recreated the films formula. I myself was introduced to the formula for “It’s a Wonderful Life” through parodies such as “Johnny Bravo” and “Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish”. Despite that, it’s still a winning premise that holds up all these years later. Actually, I love when a mostly grounded and relatable picture can be sprinkled with supernatural elements. My sister and I always joked that the films third act could have worked on its own as an episode of “The Twilight Zone”. The opening scene always got me hooked, as we begin with this montage of people praying, and then we pan-up to outer space, in which we see angels conversing among the stars. The effect is kind of laughable, but still, the concept always draws me in. Just as a side note, I was first introduced to this movie through its colorized version, and as such, it’s the version I prefer to watch. It really doesn’t mater which version you choose to view, but I do think there was a missed opportunity with the colored version. I think the sequence with George in the alternate “never been born” verse should have remained Black and White, while everything else is in color. It would have been thematic, and a cool reverse of what “The Wizard of Oz” did with its colors.  

     At last, I have to talk about the epilogue, which remains the highlight every time. When everything goes back to normal, and George goes running down the street wishing everything in his path a Merry Christmas, it’s about as iconic as holiday moments get. However, it's the following scene when all the towns people come to Georges aid, and give him their money that really gets to me. It's also beautiful as it parallels an earlier scene during the great depression, in which it was George giving the towns people all his money. Another little moment that always sticks with me is when Georges little brother Harry gives him a toast, and claims that he’s “The Richest Guy in Town”. This statement is aimed at a man who never went on to fame, fortune and just had a quiet life with a terrific family. It further highlights how beautiful the little things are, which so many have taken for granted. It’s a moment that I try to capture so often in my own life, to be surrounded by family, loved ones, and to just take that second to respect how rich the gift of life really is. Of course, that final group shot of everyone singing, paired with James Stewart winking to his guardian angel just gets me in the warm feels every time. I’m not the kind of guy who cries during movies, but this ending is an exception in which I always let myself get a little terry eyed.

   Surprisingly, the film didn’t win any Oscars at the Academy Awards, although it was nominated for several categories. Frank Capra was nominated for best director, there were two nominations for best editing and sound mixing, and naturally the film was nominated for best picture, but lost to “The Best Years of Our Lives” … which is kind of ironic. If you ask me, “It’s a Wonderful Life Should” should have won each of its respected categories, or at least one of them. I know that in general, there’s really no such thing as a “perfect movie”, but in the context of films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” … it’s by definition as PERFECT as movies get! With a solid direction from Frank Capra, an outstanding lead performance from James Stewart, a brilliant premise, and a number of thoughtful morals, “It’s a Wonderful Life” still proves to be a near flawless film. It’s like a friendly reminder to cherish the lives we have, and it does so without feeling overly preachy. Like I said, the film is still very engaging to watch, and can excite a viewer even if you’re not drawn into the message. Weather you choose to annually watch the film on Christmas, or at any point during the year, it’s still a film that warrants repeat viewings, and that’s a gift that not every old classic can achieve. I loved this movie when I first viewed it as a teenager, I love it more into my adult years, and to call it one of my favorite Christmas movies would be too simple for its own good, as it’s absolutely a favorite movie in general.

I give the 1946 holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” … a perfect 5 stars out of 5. 


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