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It’s A Wonderful Life

It’s A Wonderful Life

By Ben Nicholson • December 24th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (MOVIE)
RKO Radio Pictures

Original release: December 20th, 1946
Running time: 130 minutes

Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers

It’s A Wonderful Life

Around this time of year the question’s often asked: “What’s the best Christmas movie?” Every year I’m astonished by the answers I see being bandied around. People put forth such suggestions as Die Hard (1988), Gremlins (1984), Home Alone (1990), or perhaps more traditional fare like Miracle On 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Carol (1951), and White Christmas (1954). I’m not arguing that these are not all great Christmas movies, or that they don’t deserve to be on the festive viewing schedule. Surely, though, not even the seasonal behemoth that’s The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) can really challenge for the greatest Christmas film? It has to be Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Surely.

I’d not actually seen this film until I arrived at University, so I’ve no long-standing connection, or tradition, to fall back on in my adoration of it. I recall renting it as the end of my first term approached and the nights were closing in around a little student flat in Manchester. At this point, I’d say I could still count on my fingers the amount of films that had produced a tear in my eye – or at least that I’d admit. It’s a combination of this film and Finding Nemo that I blame for the opening of the floodgates. With everyone out for the evening, I sat alone as George Bailey’s life in Bedford Falls unfolded before my eyes.

The film is one of two halves. The camera pans through the town of Bedford Falls to the sound of various voices praying for a man named George Bailey. Suddenly, we’re gazing towards the heavens as some stars discuss the dire straits this unknown man’s in and that something must be done. They call upon a star named Clarence and endeavour to show him this man’s life to date. When we’re finally up to date with George’s life, we then see the present night, Christmas Eve, and the story continues to unfold from there.

It’s A Wonderful Life

The most important thing about about It’s A Wonderful Life is that Jimmy Stewart is just fantastic. There are few more likeable screen presences than that man and when directed my Frank Capra he was even more charming than usual. As we watch George Bailey’s life, we see a wide-eyed young man who longs to throw off the shackles of his small town and see the world. Sadly, circumstances conspire against him and his inherent and incorruptible goodness sees him putting others before himself. Years and years pass and every time he’s about to fly the nest, something happens.

The most significant of these is the death of his father. Mr. Bailey ran the Bedford Falls Building and Loan and was the one place in the close-knit community where people could turn to in order to pay for their home without crawling to the tyrannical Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Upon his father’s passing George is forced to forgo his sightseeing and college education to stay and fight for the little guy in his town and there he stays until the Christmas Eve in question.

There are so many iconic moments in It’s A Wonderful Life that it’s a joy to revisit. I remember being completely charmed by the wonderful chemistry between Stewart and Donna Reed’s Mary Hatch when they first begin courting. “You want the It’s A Wonderful Lifemoon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey, that’s a pretty good idea; I’ll give you the moon, Mary.” They’re fine couple throughout the different aspects of their relationship.

And it is not all plain sailing as George is prone to bouts of resentment at his lot in life and things go horribly wrong when some money’s misplaced by his bumbling uncle. George finds himself on the lamb, drunk as a skunk, and ready to throw in the towel and end it all – and this is where Clarence (Henry Travers) comes in. In a much imitated trope that has its roots in Dickens, George is shown by his guardian angel what life would be like in Bedford Falls had he not been born. In the process, Clarence is hoping that by helping George, he might finally be awarded his angel wings, after 200 years of waiting.

In the truest Christmas fashion, George comes to understand what is really important in his life and as such, It’s A Wonderful Life gives us the most perfect example of festive spirit in it’s closing minutes. There are few scenes in cinema that are tearjerkers without having to have seen the rest of the film for context – George’s reunion with Mary and the kids is most certainly one of them. Jimmy Stewart gives such an endearing performance as such a gentle and kind man, it’s impossible not to feel wrapped up in his troubles. So if there’s one film you need to see this Christmas, make sure that film is this one, if only for the sound of a little bell ringing and the safe knowledge that another angel has his wings. Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!

It’s A Wonderful Life

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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