It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Release Date: December 20th, 1946 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Frank Capra Actors: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, Frank Faylen
ne of the most heartwarming and uplifting films ever created, Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” perfectly captures the human spirit through faith, love, and second chances. Essentially a twist on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (though it’s officially an adaptation of Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift”), this fable of recognition and redemption is fueled by richly developed characters and masterful direction, with Jimmy Stewart and a superb supporting cast at the top of their games. Thanks to its wintery setting and universal motifs of good deeds, evil grinches, and holiday cheer, it’s also one of the most essential of all Christmas pictures.
In Bedford Falls, George Bailey (James Stewart) contemplates suicide. Through the prayers of countless friends, an angel named Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) is sent to Earth to help George in his plight. From here, the story backtracks with a narration by Joseph, the head angel, to fill in the details of Bailey’s upbringing. As a young boy, he saves his brother Harry from drowning; later, after the untimely death of his father, he stays in Bedford Falls to help run the Business and Loan Company, started years ago by his father and business partner, Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell). George desperately wants to leave the small town in which he’s been cooped up his whole life, but continually finds himself halted, first to save the association, then to allow his younger brother to go off to college, and finally to wed childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed). When the richest man in town, the conniving Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) – who has been regularly trying to buy out the Business and Loan Company – discovers a banking error that could destroy the fledgling firm, George becomes impetuous and inconsolable, convinced that he’ll be worth more dead than alive. “Is he sick?” asks Clarence. “No, worse,” responds Joseph. “He’s discouraged.”
Jimmy Stewart turns in a tour de force of hope and anguish, evoking genuine emotions alongside his impeccable partner Donna Reed, to create a timeless romance effectively conveyed, regardless of the simpler depictions acceptable in the ‘40s (the flirtatious dialogue more than makes up for visual limitations). Although it’s regularly viewed as a prime example of director Capra’s sensibilities and perspectives on the everyman and human ideals, it’s a grand accomplishment in romantic comedy pacing and structuring. And then there’s Travers’ Clarence, a manifested conscience with wonderfully elementary honesty and comedic tendencies to boot. But he’s also the catalyst for several of the most tear-jerking moments, including the orchestration of an alternate Bedford Falls (renamed Pottersville in George’s absence and therefore inability to prevent Potter from taking over the town). His friends and family don’t recognize him and he’s confronted by numerous individuals who have been significantly changed – people he never knew his actions had monumentally influenced.
As the film draws to a close, it becomes evident just how compelling this little tale of the realization of self-worth, the understanding of true value, and the dangers of taking things for granted can become, especially when told with a twist of magic and Capra’s expertise with humanism and Americana. In a striking examination of realism, the main villain never even receives a standard comeuppance, though audiences will surely imagine the miserableness he must feel and his displeasure at being regarded as such. In that flawless manner of powerful, cinematic justice, George doesn’t become – but has always been – the richest man in town, measured not by his material wealth, but by his friends.
– Mike Massie