Frank Capra's 1946 Masterpiece 'It's A Wonderful Life' has rightly gone down in film history as one of the greatest feel good movies of all time. From its humble beginnings as a short story,'The Greatest Gift', which its author Philip Van Doren Stern included on Christmas cards he sent to family and friends, it has become the most cherished of all movies, regularly topping best picture polls either side of the Atlantic. In America particularly, Christmas isn't Christmas without the family gathering around the TV to watch this incredibly affecting festive tale.
The main reason that 'It's A Wonderful Life' continues to stand the test of time, can be explained in two words - Frank Capra. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War (during which he made the exemplary 'Why We Fight Series'), Capra had established himself as one of Hollywood's premiere directors, with a string of box office smashes to his name. The most notable of which, 1934's romantic comedy 'It Happened One Night', became the first film to win all five major Academy Awards picking up Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and, of course, Best Director. Capra had become a master craftsman and a master storyteller, specialising in crowd pleasing 'moral fables' about the honest Joe, the American everyman, who stands up for 'liberal' ideals and values against corrupt businessmen and politicians
Screen giants like James Stewart and Gary Cooper had huge successes in Capra's 'Mr Smith Goes To Washington and 'Meet John Doe' respectively, and it was to Stewart, his most trusted actor, that Capra turned to when casting the part of quintessential nice-guy George Bailey. Stewart, one of the few major stars to enlist in the war against fascism, had been away from Hollywood for the best part of five years, and was extremely anguished about resuming acting again when Capra called to offer him the role, that ultimately, film critics would regard as the best of his distinguished career. Thankfully, the director was able to talk Stewart around, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Stewart's nuanced portrayal of the decent, unselfish, yet ultimately tormented Bailey, offers us a master-class in screen-acting, playing a succession of comic, romantic and dramatic scenes with absolute confidence and utter conviction. Though there is no doubting George's good heart, Stewart is also able to capture the frustration eating away at George's soul, as he sees life passing him by. Thankfully, the supporting cast are equally as good, with Lionel Barrymore turning in a career best performance as the grasping scrooge- like villain Potter, who tries to drive the Bailey family business into ruin. And, as the years have gone by, it's become impossible to imagine anyone, other than Henry Travers, playing the very special emissary, Clarence Oddbody, whose celestial mission it is to save George Bailey from the tragic fate that awaits him on Christmas Eve.
The story begins with George Bailey, a young boy determined to travel the world. He subscribes to National Geographic magazine and spends his days dreaming of "going out exploring some day, you watch". Family tragedy and financial difficulties combine though, to ensure George's ambitions are thwarted at every turn, and he feels trapped into running the family Building And Loan Company, set up by his father, and the only institution in town not owned by slum landlord, Potter. George is loved by the whole of Bedford Falls for standing up to Potter and, in a crucial scene which delineates Capra's humanitarian worldview, he confronts him about the way he treats his tenants:
"Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr Potter, this rabble you keep talking about....they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him."
Stewart is acting out of his skin here, visibly trembling with anger, for me it's one of the most genuinely moving scenes in film history.
Though the town loves him for his resolute and principled opposition to the greedy Potter, George can only feel resentment and, after a cruel plot twist, despair at his wasted life in Bedford Falls. Alone and drunk on Christmas Eve, he wishes he'd never been born.
When I went to see It's A Wonderful life at my local cinema, last Christmas, the usherette, on taking my ticket said "I hope you've brought a supply of hankies". Indeed I had. I never get past the early scene with Mr Gower in the drugstore, without breaking down, and of course the famous finale has me in floods of tears every time I have the privilege of watching it.
For some, Capra is too sentimental, the derogatory term Capra-corn applied by some cynics to his films has stuck over the years. This is superficial, knee-jerk criticism. Look beyond the joyous, feel-good message of the film and there is real darkness there, rooted at the very heart of small town America. Capra, having witnessed at first hand, the atrocities of a World War, knew all about the evil ordinary people were capable of, but he was an optimist first and foremost and a true believer in the brotherhood of man. Ultimately, though, the fact that a film, a work of art can bring us to tears is what truly makes us human. If you haven't done it yet, put this film right at the top of Santa's list, and ask him for a box of Kleenex too.
Classic Christmas film for all the family to enjoy. An all time favourite in our house!
Its brings tears and laughter - and reminds us all of the spirit of Christmas.
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