Review: It’s a Wonderful Life
Set in the fictional small-town of Bedford Falls, Jimmy Stewart is good-hearted and well-liked George Bailey. While his younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) goes off to college, George’s family can’t afford to send him, so George (who saved Harry from drowning when they were younger) stays in Bedford Falls to work at the Building and Loan company run by their father (Samuel S. Hinds). Harry promises to come back and take over for George after a while, so George can go off to college and eventually see the wide world. Unfortunately, things don’t work out that way, and poor nice guy George is left to look after the business, which is being run roughshod over by scheming, black-hearted capitalist Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who owns everything in town except The Bailey’s Building and Loan business. Thomas Mitchell plays absent-minded Uncle Billy, whose addled brain unintentionally causes calamity for the business. Donna Reed plays Mary, the good girl who has been waiting forever for George to notice her. Gloria Grahame is the town ‘bad girl’. Henry Travers turns up as an angel named Clarence, sent down to help out George when the latter becomes incredibly despondent by his life’s downward trajectory.
Although it wasn’t thought to be much on original release, this 1946 Frank Capra (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “State of the Union”, “Pocketful of Miracles”) film has become a beloved holiday classic. It’s not flawless, but the film has a tremendous amount of heart. It’s ultimately a very moving experience, and easily one of the best Yuletide movies out there. Yes, the cosmic/angel stuff is corny, dated, and a little crudely done. Yes, Henry Travers’ trainee angel Clarence is awkwardly introduced into the world of Bedford Falls just a smidge too late perhaps. However, it’s such a sweet and touching film, and both Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey and 99.99% of the townsfolk of Bedford Falls are so utterly charming and lovely that the film has already won you over before you’ve had time to think of the latter point. This is such a beautiful, touching story about a very nice and decent man for whom life seems to have kept his ambitions in a frustrating holding pattern. Life, circumstance, and a thoroughly despicable Lionel Barrymore combine to put poor nice George Bailey into such a state of hopelessness that he needs an angel to be sent down to remind him of the importance of his presence in the lives of others. In a way, I think the film plays almost like the reverse of the later (and excellent) “Forrest Gump”, who unlike George Bailey manages to overcome his initial limitations in life to live a prosperous, and rather remarkable existence. I haven’t just plucked that reference out of nowhere, as there’s even a scene in both films where the central romantic coupling (if you can call Forrest and Jenny that) are standing outside a house and one of the two throws rocks at it. Hell, both main characters even served in the military.
Despite being a touch too old for the early portion of the film, Jimmy Stewart is nonetheless perfect as George who wants very badly to leave Bedford Falls and make his mark in the world. Instead, due to numerous circumstances he keeps needing to do the ‘right’ thing and stay behind in Bedford Falls. Donna Reed was never a particularly great actress, but you have zero problem buying her as the ‘good girl’ here, nor Gloria Grahame as the supposed ‘bad girl’, who, for once in Grahame’s career, actually isn’t that bad, just a bit trashy. You can’t let Lionel Barrymore’s greedy, black-hearted Mr. Potter off the hook though. He’s not misunderstood, he’s one of cinema’s most unpleasant and irredeemable villains. The entire supporting cast is outstanding, offering up vivid small-town portraits, all the way down to John Wayne’s frequent right-hand man Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as respectively, seemingly Bedford Falls’ only cop and taxi driver (Named Bert and Ernie, Jim Henson was clearly a very clever man). Thomas Mitchell is terrific as poor, absent-minded Uncle Billy and H.B. Warner is equally touching and disturbing as the sorely grieving Mr. Gower. Henry Travers has his most iconic role as Clarence, an angel yet to get his wings. Even with his late integration into the plot (which does hold the film back from being an undeniable masterpiece), Travers is unforgettable. However, I really don’t think his character is essential to getting George to where he needs to by the end. There could’ve been other, more seamless ways to get to the destination. Still, Clarence is charming company nonetheless. Look out for an uncredited but blatantly obvious Carl ‘Alfalfa Switzer’ at one point.
The screenplay is by Capra, along with Frances Goodrich (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”), Albert Hackett (“The Thin Man”, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”), and Jo Swerling (“Gone With the Wind”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat”), and it’s to their credit that the film never gets to be too much of a downer, hence why it’s still a beloved Christmas tradition for many to watch the film. If you don’t well up with tears at some point in the film’s second half, you may not be human. My moment? (SPOILER) George’s brother Harry near the end of the film: ‘A toast to my big brother George, The richest man in town’. It just wrecks me even recalling it now (END SPOILER).
A completely lovely, inspirational ‘feel good’ movie that has to make you feel a bit bad first. The destination is worth the sometimes harrowing journey, however especially if it might in some corny way help some real George Bailey’s out there, in need of a reminder of their worth. You matter. To someone somewhere, your presence in their lives matters. The cast are excellent from top to bottom. Often imitated/riffed on, never equalled. It’s schmaltzy, a little awkward, but somehow ends up working its magic on you to where the flaws don’t end up mattering so much. It’s a classic movie of small town Americana, Bedford Falls seems like such a lovely place to live. Well, aside from that evil old bastard Mr. Potter. How can you not love a town where the town cabbie and town cop get to helping a fella find suitable accommodations on his honeymoon night? In fact, I’m kinda unsure as to why anyone would want to leave the place. Lovely score by Dimitri Tiomkin (“Strangers on a Train”, “High Noon”), as well.