It’s a Wonderful Life

Review No. 376

The Bottom Line: It’s a wonderful film.

Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Based on: “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern
George Bailey: James Stewart
Also Starring: Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell

Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures on December 20, 1946. Produced in English by the United States. Runs 130 minutes. Rated PG by the MPAA for thematic elements, smoking and some violence.

It’s a Wonderful Life was watched on December 24, 2012.

“Look, Daddy! Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!” –Zuzu Bailey (Karolyn Grimes)

Anyone who has been reading my film critique for more than three months should be very well acquainted with my overwhelming cynicism. More often than not, you can trust that I’m right here, as the one outlying critic who writes about certain films and mopes in his disappointment, doing almost nothing but pointing out the flaws that ruined films most others would consider “classics.”

I’m not quite sure how exactly I should break it to you all, but if you are searching for a snide commentary on It’s a Wonderful Life, I implore you to stop reading right now.

All right, let’s cut to the chase. I absolutely loved the film. Yes, it’s fairly cheesy; I could wholeheartedly understand why this would grow stale after three or four annual holiday viewings. But it’s also the greatest, most impeccably executed “feel-good” film I’ve ever seen. The intent of such films is to leave the viewer smiling. Just thinking about It’s a Wonderful Life, from open to close, draws a smile across my cheeks.

George Bailey is a great man. For as far back as he can remember, he has lived deaf in one ear, because his twelve-year-old self swiftly risked his life to save his nine-year-old brother from drowning in a frozen pond. He’s always smiling, highly likable, and very magnanimous, particularly for a banker during the Great Depression. He experiences love at first sight with a woman named Mary during high school; despite the unfavorable odds, the couple ends up married, and later with three beautiful children.

But one Christmas Eve, George believes he has misplaced $8,000 that needed to be deposited. (Adjusted for inflation, this amount would equal at least $90,000 in today’s money.) He can’t seem to remember all the good he has done to his town, all the cheer he has spread, all the magnanimity for which he is known.

George has a nervous breakdown and begins to consider suicide quite seriously. But upon this midnight clear comes an angel named Clarence. Clarence is a “second-class angel,” meaning he has yet to earn his wings. In order to do so, he feels obligated to assist George in getting back up on his feet, by means of viscerally presenting to him what the town would be like, had he never been born.

It’s a Wonderful Life is truly a wonderful drama. There’s much depth in it, as we see the entire story from an omniscient perspective, beginning in George’s childhood, closing circa Christmastime. Jimmy Stewart adds much character to his portrayal of George. When he’s happy, he’s an upbeat, cheerful, joking man. When he’s frustrated, he’s discombobulated in almost every possible respect. I have not seen Fredric March’s lead in The Best Years of Our Lives, but if I were to do so within the next month, it would simply be in order to discern what the Academy saw in him that may have been missing in Mr. Stewart.

Many say the essence of story is giving a character with a goal and, by the end, allowing him or her to have changed. Combine Stewart’s tour de force with the equally brilliant screenplay–written in part by the film’s own director–and the transformation is impossible not to notice.

I went for years without having seen It’s a Wonderful Life. I didn’t view it as a problem back then, but my new cinematic joy is a reminder of an old Christian hymn: “I once was lost, but now am found, ’twas blind, but now I see.”



16 thoughts on “It’s a Wonderful Life

    • When I start looking for colleges to attend after high school, I’m looking (among others) for ones in big cities. You guys over in London and New York and whatnot seem to have all these great experiences at the movies. The closest I’ve come was seeing Casablanca at the movies last March, but I may have enjoyed it more if I’d come in twenty minutes later and remained unaware that they’d simply projected it from an On Demand TV network program.

    • It was always one of those movies that I hadn’t seen and everybody thought that was a justifiable reason to put me in an insane asylum. Pretty high up, actually, with Apocalypse Now, Oldboy, Taxi Driver, My Neighbor Totoro, Pulp Fiction, My Left Foot…the list probably ends…somewhere…

  1. I thought your post needed some cynicism, so I lifted this from a freind of mines Facebook status update:

    “Every Christmas I think that George Baily in It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t the good guy everyone thinks he is. Essentially, he’s an incompetent banking CEO with weak internal controls that allowed his financial institution to fall prey to a run on the banks because of its lack of liquidity and poor investments.

    For all intent and purposes, he’s Angelo Mozilo (former CEO of Countrywide) 60 years ago. The real hero of the movie is the bank examiner who was going to shut them down in order to protect depositor’s savings.”

    • You make a good point. He did do some outstanding things (i.e. save his brother), but he wasn’t, you know, Mother Teresa or Gandhi. At the end, there’s a line that I kind of scoffed at: (paraphrased) “Congrats on being the richest man in town!” Gosh, all this and he’s ultimately grouped among the stereotypical “rich snobs”? The ending kind of has trouble defining “the meaning of Christmas” because of that.

      As for the bank examiner, he’s no worse. Yes, he led Clarence to stop George Bailey from committing suicide, but he also INSPIRED George to commit suicide by playing him.

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