1946 saw the release of a number of notable movies...A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations, Notorious, The Big Sleep and Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. These days It's a Wonderful Life has become the staple diet of Christmas television viewing, once the purview of television networks across the United States, even our small shores are warming to this tale of woe and joy. At Christmas we can now enjoy It's a Wonderful Life along with The Wizard of Oz and The Great Escape. Not bad really, the youngest is only a mere 46 years old, 1963... what a fantastic year that was. What does this say though, that we revere the older movies more than the ones made today? Perhaps not, but there was an age where movies gave the viewing public a little hope, a little inspiration. I'm all in favour of rebooting every franchise possible, getting darker and grittier, however there's nothing wrong with a light hearted, feel good movie for those lazy Sunday afternoons, especially at this time of year.
Frank Capra excelled at these, Mr Deed Goes to Town, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Lost Horizon provided ultimately uplifting experiences for the viewer, the later of these being my favourite, and Capra garnered his place in movie going history as the feel good movie maker. Then along comes It's a Wonderful Life with a title which you think would simply continue Capra's 'investigation' of the human spirit and the hope and joy it can contain. This was not to be the case on its initial release and only received that reputation many years later after repeat viewings on network television. Those viewings really only came about because the studios at the time thought that It's a Wonderful Life has lapsed copyright. Ironically the Potter like financial manoeuvrings solidified this movie as one of the ones to watch once you and your family gather round with your mulled wine.
We begin at the end: George Bailey is about to end it all, his life is in ruins, his family about to be disgraced and he can take no more; as the town's people pray for him a kindly angel, Clarence, is sent to watch over George in his hour of need. It is Clarence's mission to convince George his life is worth living. He does this by showing George the town's life as it would be if George had never existed. All manner of events come to pass which George had an influence on and he realises he did help the town to become as stable as it is today. In the end no matter how many troubles George may have at any one point in time he comes to realise that it is in fact a wonderful life he has lived.
The end in this instance does justify the means, the feelings the viewer experiences as George makes his final decision to return to his family, adhere to the principles Capra had raised in his earlier works. Throughout the film though it's a slightly different matter. As the film progresses we do see odd glimpses of hope, odd glimpses of fulfilment (the chase scene at the building and loan for instance where people come to realise that to help themselves and others they only need enough to get by) however there is a continued undercurrent of disappointment in this film which Capra had not instilled in his other films. Even though George tries, and usually succeeds, in helping his fellow man life continually seems to be at odds with him, loosing his hearing, being unable to fulfil his dreams of travel, ridiculed at wanting more platonic relationship with the town's platinum blonde, bullied by Potter whose only desire is to grab as much as he can and then take to the grave with him. All of these are pretty much downers and they seem to be continual throughout the film, only at the end though do we see the whole, see his life as George now sees it.
James Stewart, as good old George Bailey, seems almost perfect casting; he's asked to play his amiable self for a large part of the movie however he is called upon to provide elements of pathos, anger and despair; he's running the whole gamut here and whilst his performance was recognised by the academy select committee in 1947, the accolade for best leading actor eventually fell to Fredric March for The Best Years of Our Lives. With Olivier also in the frame for Henry the Fifth it was a tough year to be included. Any other year and I am sure Stewart would have walked away with the title, that one however was too close to call between those three main contenders. And that seemed to be the case that year for all the main categories. It's a Wonderful Life was nominated for five awards yet left the awards ceremony bare with Best Picture, Best Director, Best leading Man, Best Editing and Best Sound all falling to other equally worthy candidates.
Special mention should also go to Lionel Barrymore; only two years later he would create the role most people would remember him for, the still wheelchair bound James Temple from the Huston/Bogart almost noire Key Largo. The role he had here though is straight out of a Dickensian fable, and of his many stories only Scrooge and A Christmas Carol can spring to mind. The parallels cannot be ignored and the only deviation from Dickens' original text is that our financial wheeler dealer does not find the ultimate salvation that Ebeneezer does; it is no coincidence that Barrymore was playing Scrooge on the radio at that moment in time. Potter is a self centred man, black and cold of heart, one person in the Capra cannon who never finds comfort, and this is another unusual aspect for the film. He finds no solace for his bitterness and even though he has underhand plays throughout the feature he is never brought to book for the crimes he commits. As a character he is loathed and hated so much that the film and Capra were reported to the authorities as being a communist propaganda, after all bad mouthing bankers is obviously a communist trait; a trait that more than a few of us have taken up in recent months! Strange that the accuser never thought to mention that Capra himself was a staunch Republican and mildly active in anti-communist moments at the time.
An outstanding feature of this film, for myself though, is the town of Bedford Falls; a huge constructed set covering some 4 acres in Encio, Los Angeles. It was some time and after many repeated viewings that I came to realise that Bedford Falls was indeed just a set somewhere. It's glorious and all credit has to go to Jack Okey (art director), Emile Kuri (set decorator) and the Liberty / RKO production team for their sterling efforts in producing a set which still to this day looks as though it's something you could live in, shop in and walk down. The main street stretches as far as the camera can see, encompassing three full street blocks, 75 associated buildings and some 20 odd growing, living trees in the middle. It's still as glorious this day as it must have been all those years ago.
I'm not usually a fan of films which intentionally go out to pull on your heart strings but this is something different, I cannot help but love it. It's far too sugary sweet for its own good, but that was Capra at his core, he had ultimate faith in the human spirit and his movies reflected that. This film takes you out of where you're currently sitting and gives you a polished look at what life could be like in an all too perfect world. From that point of view It's a Wonderful Life, like his other works, has its faults but you still get drawn into George Bailey's incredible life and at the end have to agree that it's never as bad as it seems at the time. Always recommended and always one to watch as the cold winter days set in.
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