It's a Wonderful Life Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    It's a Wonderful Life Review
    A well-worn Yuletide staple on television, Frank Capra's perennial It's A Wonderful Life surprisingly did not receive much success or recognition upon its premier in 1946. In fact, it actually lost over half a million dollars and only garnered mixed reviews at best. The esteemed New York critic Pauline Kael went so far as to label the latter-day fable as “patronising” and as nothing more then “doggerel”. But when the film's copyright went un-renewed in 1974, the picture, just like The Wizard Of Oz, found syndicated TV to be a natural haven that not only preserved it for re-appraisal, but introduced it to new generations. Only with its repeated airing on both sides of the Atlantic did Capra's beloved tale gain the adoration of millions and then go on to attain a healthy position in many film fans' and critics' top ten movie lists. And it is heart-warming, too, that its producer/director Frank Capra and its star, James Stewart, both lived to see the success that it ultimately achieved. But is it solely a Christmas classic? Or can It's A Wonderful Life be just as enjoyable and rewarding an experience at any time of year?

    “He's making violent love to me, mother!”

    Based upon the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren - who actually vanity-published his tale and sent it out inside Christmas cards to his friends - Frank Capra seized on the unapologetically sentimental ode to life, love and all-round human worth, seeing in it the elements that had become his cinematic trademarks in films such as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and You Can't Take It With You. That he embraced such endearing characters and time-honoured - though some would argue, saccharine-coated - values of all-American optimism and slushy emotional drama had given rise to his films getting the contemporary tag of “Capra-corn”. But, to his eternal credit, he persisted with these little films, virtually creating his own genre of well-intentioned morality fables. A very focussed filmmaker, Capra (born into the ethic of studio-as-God days of cinema) nevertheless trusted his own judgment in the casting of his picture, even when the backers advised otherwise. Farming the initial pitch out to three celebrated screenwriters also resulted in him only taking on board certain facets of their treatments before embarking on his own version of the screenplay. But, it is pertinent to note, that he still utilised the considerable talents of such highly regarded wordsmiths as Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling to fine-tune his script. He then set about making what would become (and he surely must have realised this at the time, too) the pinnacle of his career. But why does it work so well? How does such a simple story speak so deeply and so earnestly to us, even after all these years?

    “You're worth more dead, than alive!”

    Well, the answer is probably just that - simplicity. It's A Wonderful Life is the tale of a man, George Bailey (played by Stewart) and his passage through life, weathering its ups and downs and the often calamitous effects that fate seems to have in store for him. With a third of the movie recounted in flashback, we see him as a child - selfless and courageous, even then - losing his hearing in one ear when he saves his younger brother from drowning under a frozen pond and even intervening in a potentially fatal error when a grieving chemist prescribes the wrong drugs - and later as a young turk with grand ideas for leaving the small town that he feels is holding him back and exploring the big, wide world with endless schemes for success. Always happy and conscientious he seems keen to put the affairs of others before his own, sowing the seeds of his gentle, yet noble demeanour at the expense of his dreams, missing out on so much of the ambition that once drove him. And, years later, after his hardworking father passes away, he forsakes the ideals he once had for further education and world travel, to stay behind and manage the family business, the Bailey Building And Loan Society. As opportunity after opportunity slips through his fingers, George's quiet philosophy appears to place friends, family and love before material wealth, his spiritual gains far outweighing his riches. But, of course, he doesn't realise this until one disaster too many - or, if you like, one test too many - threatens to tip this good-natured man over the edge. When suicide beckons as the only escape from his woes, George is confronted by salvation in the form of bumbling trainee angel Clarence (an excellent Henry Travers), who is assigned by the celestial observers to watch over George and pull him back from the brink. And thus, in the Christmas Carol manner of things that may have been, George is shown his true worth as a human being when Clarence reveals to him the events that would have transpired if he had never been born. It's a one-wish get-out clause, if you will.

    “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry.”

    It's certainly a bizarre and tragic alternate universe that succinctly throws an unwelcome light upon the consequences of life in the town of Bedford Falls without the instrumental interactions of George Bailey. The message becomes resoundingly clear to one and all. We each have a part to play in the game of life. All of our actions dictate how others, in turn, will act. And, in our own small way, we are all vitally important to one another.

    “Happy New Year to you ... in jail!”

    It's A Wonderful Life contains so many classic scenes and captivating images that to recount them here would simply read like a shopping list of cinema's greatest heartfelt moments. Capra's direction is smooth and un-fussed, he chooses simple set-ups and brings them to life with an almost effortless style that suggests he just sits back and lets the story, itself, unfold at its own leisurely pace. The cinematography by Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc is equally understated, yet allows for some marvellous tracking shots and views down the main street, great framing of the many group scenes and, of course, the brief but majestic glimpse of a distraught George taking that last walk along the bridge through the falling snow. Dimitri (The Thing From Another World) Tiomkin's score is, to my mind, not that distinctive, but to imagine the film without it would be unthinkable. But the real genius at play here comes from the richness of the performances. Married to a terrific script, the cast - to the last man, woman or child - are exemplary. From the barnstorming Lionel Barrymore as the miserly old villain of the piece, Mr. Potter - who is literally bleeding the town dry - to the angelic-faced Donna Reed's yearning portrayal of George's wife, Mary, the films' roster of characters truly live and breathe.

    “She lights up like a firefly whenever you're near.”

    But the undeniable star of the show is Jimmy Stewart. Capturing the joys and the despair, the highs and the lows of George Bailey and the events that shape his life is certainly no mean feat. But in Stewart, Capra knew implicitly that the star would nail the part - from the comical young courting days with an adorable Mary, through the shrewd business moves that will keep him ahead of the despicable Mr. Potter, to the soul-crumbling abyss of utter helplessness that would see the familiar face explore hitherto uncharted realms of grim darkness and mounting personal plight. Stewart takes the emotional core of George and totally runs with it without fear, or regret. There really weren't that many big names at the time that could have pulled it off with this degree of conviction. The look of hope drifting from his eyes as more and more opportunities seem to vanish from his grasp instils in him a certain inevitable forlornness that creeps over his entire character, clouding more than just his countenance, perishing his form more than the snow buffeting the town. The desperation of his pleas to the crowd when they demand their money back are a bravura showcase of Jimmy Stewart's achingly vulnerable performance. In this once sequence, his emotions run the gamut from the frantic to the placatory and then on to celebratory euphoria when once again, he manages to salvage something from the financial wringer that Potter is putting him through. It's very tempting to call it a one-man-show, but with so many other talented actors peppering the picture, Stewart becomes the icing on a very rich cake, indeed. Just watching his evolution throughout the movie acts as its own catharsis, but I believe that it is his darker self-destructive mode that is the most satisfying to behold. He would later go on to delve even deeper into the psychological morass with Hitchcock in Rear Window and Vertigo, but the transformation he undergoes here is often quite shocking. Witness his despondent treatment of his kids as they decorate the Christmas tree, his tirade over the phone and the pitiable wrecking spree that follows. Particularly engrossing to watch is the marvellous catalogue of expressions that he employs throughout the film, his face becoming a veritable smorgasbord of nuance, incredulity and plain old simple gurning. His performance is emotional, physical and convincing. For my money, he was never better than here as George Bailey.

    “Homesick ... for Bedford Falls?”

    And the last glorious component of the film just has to be the wonderful creation of Bedford Falls, itself. We see it throughout the seasons and over the passage of many years, its old-town homeliness a reassurance even to us, the viewers. Capra truly manages to make it seem like a real place and there is, especially given the film's familiarity, a genuine sense of warmth and nostalgia about the streets and the stores and the denizens. Just the sight of that signpost at the start is like a homecoming. The author Steven King owes a debt to this make-believe hamlet in the childlike-cum-adult way in which he paints his predominantly Maine-based locales. We always think that we know small-town Mid-American suburbia via the movies that take us there (Halloween's Haddonfield is next best example), but it is Bedford Falls that first opened its borders to us. Come the end of the movie, it actually feels somewhat difficult to leave ... and that is just part of the timeless, fairytale quality of Capra's It's A Wonderful Life.

    “ 'atta boy, Clarence!”

    So, unappreciated upon its initial release but held in lofty regard by audiences and critics alike once it had travelled a little bit, Capra's most Capra-esque movie stands the test of time like few others. Often cited as the ultimate feel-good film, It's A Wonderful Life actually takes an abrupt left-turn and ends up wringing the emotions in the most unexpected fashion. That George Bailey is a hero is never in doubt, but the essence is that we all are just as heroic as he is, and just as painfully flawed and full of self-loathing. The cleverest, and the bravest move, is having the guts to show George at that most critical of moments as he contemplates the ultimate act of cowardice. Thankfully, most of us never reach that stage ... so perhaps the notion of a guardian angel watching over us and preventing us from taking such a drastically wrong step is not such a fanciful one at all. The sentimental tone of the film thus hangs in jeopardy with such a dark and sombre third act, and the harmony of what has gone before it is therefore threatened. The fragility of life and happiness forever teetering on the knife-edge of fate. It's a morality play, certainly, but it is also meticulous proof - if ever it were needed - that it is, indeed, a wonderful life.

    Not just a Christmas movie then, folks. It is an evergreen, all-year-round fable of the salvation of the soul and the human spirit. The point, so entertainingly made in old school sheen, being that we all, every single one of us, make a difference to those around us. And, to be honest, there's nothing corny, or sentimental about that. An excellent film.

    The Rundown

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