Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life is a heartwarming tale of how small gestures of kindness can lead to rewards we never would have expected
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
Starring James Stewart and Donna Reed
Directed by Frank Capra
Released by Liberty Films
Merry Christmas Forget the Box readers! I don’t know what special traditions you and your family have during the holidays but at my house, after we’ve stuffed ourselves with turkey and drank too much mulled wine, we like to gather in the living room and watch Frank Capra’s 1946 feel-good classic It’s A Wonderful Life.
The film opens on Christmas Eve and small town entrepreneur George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is contemplating suicide. God is watching the situation from heaven and decides to dispatch bumbling angel Clarence (Henry Travers) down to earth to give George some divine intervention. But before he leaves, God recounts to Clarence the life of George Bailey so this angel knows what he’s dealing with.
George Bailey is the perfect example of the type of character that James Stewart would play many more times in his career: the lovable everyman. Maybe with the exception of The Philadelphia Story (1940), in my opinion he’s never as good in any role as he is here.
George is a man who desperately yearns to escape his small town existence and travel the world and yet for one reason after another George finds himself left behind as his friends and brother all leave home to have adventures. But life isn’t all bad. At home George has his wife Mary, aka the perfect housewife Donna Reed.
I wish that the character of Mary was allowed to have some sort of life outside of the home but this is the forties, so I guess can’t expect too much. Reed is charming (of course!) as a woman who’s perfectly happy with a modest small town life, even if her husband isn’t.
Professionally taking over his father’s building and loan business has never given George much satisfaction, but what keeps him going is the desire to stick it to the evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). What I love about Mr. Potter is that he’s basically what the Grinch would look like if he took human form. Barrymore gives the richest man in town such a delicious nasty streak that along with Mr. Rooney from Ferris Buller’s Day Off (1986) and Arvin Sloane from Alias (2001-2006) he makes my list for all time favourite bad guys.
When Potter finally gets the upper hand over George because of the clumsiness of one of George’s employees, we know that George is in serious trouble and so Clarence is ready for his entry and begins the best part of the film that has been copied endlessly in film and television since.
To prove to George that his life is not meaningless, Clarence shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he’d never been born at all. What George learns is that because of his kindness and devotion to the community, without him around the town would fall into ruin. He may never become a world famous traveler but as far as Bedford Falls is concerned he’s the most important man in town.
There are few scenes I can name that still affect me deeply upon repeated viewings and the final scene in this film when George is reunited with his family gets me every frickin’ year. Is it cheesy? Sure. B ut with the recession still going on and the extremely cynical, fast paced world we live in nowadays we owe it to ourselves to get a little sentimental sometimes.