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Jimmy Stewart is fantastic in his most famous movie, a charming American take on A Christmas Carol. There are some very funny and some very dark moments, and they're perfectly balanced, much like the performances. Frank Capra is a little over-ambitious (the early shots of God talking to the angels in heaven is an example) but he knows what the audience will respond to in a way like no other director. It's amazing to think this did poor box office business, but then I guess some people don't know a good thing when they've had it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's A Wonderful Life (1946) Director: Frank Capra Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers
Running Time: 130 minutes
If you don't know a single thing about It's A Wonderful Life then you cannot seriously call yourself a movie lover. But we'll tell you about it anyway. It's a Christmas Classic that has survived criticisms of schmaltzness. And a movie in the 40s being too schmalzy has to be a worry. Anyway heres the story. George Bailey (James Stewart in his signature role) is a man who has put his friends and family before his own happiness his entire life. Whether it is jumping into ice to save his little brother Harry, an act that cost him his hearing in his left ear. Or if it's sacrificing his dream of travelling the world to look after his late father's bank so it can stay in business or so Harry can have a bright future with his wife. He even gave up a lucrative $20,000 a year contract from local miser Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) simply because of the townsfolk he has already helped enough. After all, he built them a bunch of good quality houses, allowing them to leave Potter's slums and enjoy a good life. Whatever the deed George Bailey hasn't thought of himself once in his life. He has dreamt of leaving Bedford Falls but through his own good nature has never been able to. He has settled down with his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and four kids. So when his Uncle Billy `misplaces' $8,000 (Potter finds it, keeps it) George is faced with scandal and prison. He is a man at the end of his tether he takes it out on everyone, even his own family. In the end he is told he is worth more dead than alive and decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. Only, that's not the end for right at the beginning of the story we know that an angel is watching over George and it is he who saves George from suicide. The angel is Clarence (Henry Travers) who, as you should know, shows George the good he has done people in his lifetime, starting with a trip to what should be Martini's. We discover that George wasn't there too save his old boss Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning food through his grief. Then we find out that Harry, who is to be given a medal from the President for bravery in WW2, died when he broke through the ice, because George wasn't there too save him. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville because George wasn't there too battle Potter, Mary ends up an old maid because George wasn't there to love her, Uncle Billy went insane because George wasn't there to help with the business, it goes on and on. When George begs to live again and is re-united with his family there isn't a hard heart in sight. It's A Wonderful Life has many themes of love, friendship, kindness, redemption even just pure coincidence, but there is one clear message running through this dark but magically uplifting Frank Capra Christmas Classic: It truly is a wonderful life.
Every so often, a real gem presents itself. Perhaps Capra's greatest work, this is the quintessential "feel good" movie. A man is brought back from the brink of suicide by internal reflection on his life, pointed out by the external source of the guardian angel. One of the few films to address, albeit subtly, the power of prayer. The prayers of friends and family manifest themselves in the help of the angel. It is through the community that George had defined himself, and through that same community he found redemption. The film is very deserving of its accolades.
This is a fantastic film.
The fact that George is struggling so hard to get away and make something of his life that he doesn't realise how much good he is doing for the people around him, and what a success he already is.
I love this movie. I did get a bit sick of it a few years ago when it
played on just about every channel at just about every hour just about every
day from Thanksgiving to Christmas. But I never quite got to the point
where I hated the movie.
This movie, like a lot of Frank Capra's, is sometimes thought of as sentimental almost to the point of schmaltz. It is true that a first glance this seems like a "feel-good movie" to use the present-day parlance. But, again like a lot of Capra's movies, it has a dark side lurking under its sunny exterior. It's usually not patently obvious, but rather subtle. In this case, James Stewart's dark hard-edged side is most notably seen in the scene where he goes home and abuses his family before going out to get plastered. It's only a small part of the movie, but it's there, nicely complementing the sweet, nice, aw-shucks good-guy character he portrays throughout the rest of the movie. It also shows what an actor of range Stewart was.
If you know anyone who hates Christmas get them to watch this and it will melt their icy heart in no time. For best results watch on Christmas Eve snuggled up in front of a cosy fire eating Christmas food and drinking hot chocolate and you will wish Christmas was every day.
A kind man is prevented from committing suicide by an elderly angel, who takes him back through his life to show him the difference he has made but more importantly the good he has done. A sentimental comedy, fantasy, drama of the highest order. The amazing depth of character and incident are perfectly executed. The cast, direction and plot are remarkable. James Stewart is at his best as the man asked by the angel to reflect on his life. The film builds up to a real tear jerking ending. This is Frank Capras greatest achievement, and could justifiably lay claim to being one, if not the greatest film ever made. If life is not like this, then I say it ought to be. Can Cinema ever be bettered?
James Stewart has long been a favourite actor of mine. Not just because of
his effortless charm and wry wit both on and off screen, but because of the
variety of roles he played in his distinguished career. He was the favourite
actor of many eminent directors. Capra, Hitchcock and Ford all used his
ample talents more than once, and although many people associate him with
either westerns or sugary, cutesy roles, he was very versatile and a
remarkable talent. It's a Wonderful Life shares the same misfortune - to be
misunderstood. Often written off as a Christmas film or schmaltz, It's a
Wonderful Life is neither. George Bailey is a complex character. He is first
and foremost a man, and he feels the acute pain of bitter disappointment. He
doesn't act out of love for his fellow man, he acts out of love and respect
for his family. He is burdened with being the eldest son, and the
responsibility that that entails, and his greatest desire, to travel, is
thwarted by these responsibilities. We share his pain because George Bailey
is a good man and we want to see good things happen to
While his brother and his friends achieve fame and fortune, George is left
behind in Bedford Falls, the town he grew up in and so desperately wants to
George is resentful of the people who put him in this situation, especially
the unscrupulous Mr Potter, played by the excellent Lionel Barrymore. When
$3000 goes missing from the Building and Loans, George is at the end of his
tether, and Clarence the angel is sent to save him.
This really is not schmaltz or saccharine, the film is a dark study of responsibility and disappointment, and even though all ends happily around the Christmas tree, this certainly is not a Christmas movie, because by definition they have to be crap.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on Philip Van Doren Stern's
story "The Greatest Gift" with a screenplay by Frances Goodrich and
Albert Hackett and Capra plus additional scenes from Jo Swerling, this
essential family fantasy drama lost the Academy Award for Best Picture
of the Year to producer Samuel Goldwyn's The Best Years of our Lives
However, It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is a much more well known film today, in part because its copyright was (mistakenly) not renewed such that it fell into the public domain, and it was widely aired on television stations that didn't have to pay royalties. Its heartwarming, sentimental story helped place it #11 on AFI's 100 Greatest Movies list and #8 on AFI's 100 Greatest Love Stories list. The struggle between its two principal characters earned Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter the #7 position on AFI's top 50 villains list and James Stewart's George Bailey #9 on AFI's top 50 heroes list.
The cast also includes Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Samuel Hinds, and Mary Treen as Cousin Tilly, among many others. Additionally, noted prolific character actors Sheldon Leonard, Charles Lane as a rent collector, Al Bridge (uncredited), Ellen Corby (uncredited), Dick Elliott (uncredited), Charles Halton (uncredited), J. Farrell MacDonald (uncredited) plays a house owner, Moroni Olsen's voice (uncredited), and even Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer (uncredited) are among those who also appear. Added to the National Film Registry in 1990. #1 on AFI's 100 Most Inspiring Movies list.
The film's story spans many years, including prolonged flashback sequences which detail the importance of one man's life, George Bailey's, and he affected others in his community. A suicidal George (Stewart) is given the opportunity, by an angel named Clarence (Travers), to see what his town of Bedford Falls would have been like if he'd never been born. Reed plays Mary Hatch, Sam Wainwright's (Frank Albertson) "girl" in high school who falls in love and marries George instead (Elliot's character says, effectively, "Ain't ya gonna kiss her" and then, after George's dumbfounded response, "Ah, youth is wasted on the wrong people"). Sarah Edwards plays Mary's mother, upset that her daughter didn't choose handsome (& wealthy) Sam. Ernie Bishop (Faylen) and Officer Bert (Bond) serenade the two love birds on their wedding night.
But George is embroiled in a fight for the common folk, those who can't afford any kind of housing of their own outside of living in the cheap tenements financed by Mr. Potter (Barrymore). George had grandiose dreams of his own, a college education and his own industrial company leading to fortune one day. But when his Pa (Hinds) died, George was more or less thrust into running the family's building & loan by its board members, who would've otherwise sold out to Potter. Bondi plays Ma Bailey. So George agreed to run things, with his flaky Uncle Billy (Mitchell), while he sent his younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) off to college with the understanding that he'd return (and do the same for George). But Harry returns from college with a wife (Virginia Patton), so George is still stuck.
On George's wedding day, there's a run on the bank (e.g. during the Depression). But with Mary's help, their honeymoon travel money, and George's charisma (Corby plays one that he kisses after convincing her to withdraw only the money she's needs), the Baileys are able to save the building & loan for another day. After a confrontation with George (which began as the old man was trying to hire the young whippersnapper), slimy Mr. Potter continues to look for an opportunity to eliminate his only competition, and gets the chance one day with Uncle Billy loses the money he was to deposit in the old crank's bank, threatening the building & loan's solvency (Potter himself gets the money!). This leads to a visit from auditors (Halton) and George's suicide attempt. Angel Clarence (sent to Earth by Olsen's voice, among others) enables George to visit "Potterville", the town that would have been (e.g. had George never lived):
Pharmacist Gower (Warner) would've poisoned someone due to his own drunkenness. Harry would've slipped through the ice and drown as a child such that those on a transport he'd saved during the war would've perished as well. Violet Bick (Grahame) would've become a "loose" girl without George's kindness, etc., to say nothing of all those who wouldn't have been able to purchase homes of their own without the existence of the building & loan. Even bar owner Mr. Martini (William Edmunds) would've lost his business to his less friendly bartender Nick (Leonard) without George.
Naturally, the experience convinces George that he wants to live, and he's given a second chance. He's thrilled to see that his car is still wrecked (e.g. as it was before his surreal experience), though the Sheriff (Bridge) thinks he's nuts. He's excited that his pocket still contains his youngest daughter Zuzu's (Karolyn Grimes) flower petals. He runs through Bedford Falls gleefully shouting "Merry Christmas" to everyone on Christmas Eve. When he gets home, one of the most memorable scenes in film history (the most tear-jerking as well) includes Uncle Billy arriving with a basket of money, nickels & dimes from all those that George and the building & loan has helped through the years, to make up the difference for the loss (of capital by Uncle Billy); even the auditor contributes to the fund as does Sam Wainwright, by telegram; Harry, who's returned home too, toasts his big brother George as "the richest man in town". A bell rings on the Christmas tree and Zuzu states that teacher says an angel's got "his" wings; George says "that's right, way to go Clarence" as the whole community crowds into the Bailey's humble home singing "Auld Lang Syne".
A friend once told me that this was one of the best films he has ever seen. I watched the last fifteen minutes, and it made me want to pull out my eyes. ....and not in a good way! Saccharine? Jesus, it would give you terminal diabetes! WAY over the top. If the people of my town acted like this, I'd think I'd landed in the land of the Stepford Wives! Just yuk, the entire (supposedly great) ending. As I'd never seen it before, I was expecting a few tears, but instead almost had to watch it through my fingers from embarrassment. A classic? Depressing at the beginning, OTT schmaltz at the end. Still, it takes all sorts, I guess, and I guess I'm in the minority, here. And in that case, I'm quite pleased.
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