It’s A Wonderful Life [Retro Review]

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

The Scoop: 1946 G, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Henry Travers

Tagline: It’s a wonderful laugh! It’s a wonderful love!

Summary Capsule: On Christmas Eve, Jimmy Stewart learns just how important one man’s life can be.

Drew’s Rating: The greatest movie ever made? Depends when you ask…

Drew’s Review: It’s inevitable that even as you read this, a lot of you are groaning and rolling your eyes, saying “Is he serious? Okay gramps, whatever; I’ll stick with A Christmas Story, thank you very much.” Hey, I hear you… I loves me some Red Ryder too. And I understand your mentality- old movie + black-and-white + clichéd, overdone plot = who cares? Trouble me not with your “classics,” old man, just point me toward Christmas Vacation.

Trust me, I get it. I honestly do. It’s an older movie, it’s shamelessly manipulative in tugging at your heartstrings, it’s been copied and parodied and ripped off a thousand different ways in every form of media there is, and once a year without fail, there it is on network TV some fine December evening, spliced into eight dozen segments interrupted by a mere six commercials apiece — so reliable you could set your watch to it. Let’s face it, these things do not exactly scream out “cult,” and more often than not indicate a severe lack of actual entertainment to be had.

But please, if I impart absolutely nothing else of merit during my tenure as a Mutant (not so unlikely, at that), let me just remind people of this — melodramatic is not always bad. Cheesy is not always bad. Direct, forceful, somewhat preachy messages? They have their time and place (and Christmas is probably it). Yes, cult fans naturally gravitate toward films with a lot more subtlety, where understated is the word of the day in everything from humor to overall theme. We like to be challenged to pick up the message on our own… but as in all things, that doesn’t mean we should ignore those that are staring us right in the face either. So once a year, for just two hours, put away your disaffected aloofness, set aside the deadpan sensibilities, and simply appreciate one damn fine, well-made, unabashedly sentimental film.

If you’re not familiar with the plot — and yes, there probably are a few of you living out there on Pluto who aren’t — Life chronicles the existence of one George Bailey, professional Everyman. George is a nice guy, a regular joe, your average suburbanite with his wife and house and kids and car. Like many of us, his future didn’t turn out quite the way he anticipated while growing up — in George’s case, his father’s untimely death forcing him to take over the old man’s floundering Building and Loan — but even so, it’s a good life. But one Christmas everything falls apart for poor George, in the form of a lost bank payment. Before he knows what’s happening, he’s facing embezzlement charges, scandal and jail time. Despondent, he contemplates ending it all, but the timely intervention of Clarence, his own personal guardian angel (second class), shows George what life would really be like if he’d never been born… and, ultimately, what makes his life so outstanding after all.

I’ll be honest, in all the years I’ve been watching this movie, something I’ve always wondered is why I feel such an attachment to George Bailey. Sure, he’s a likeable enough fellow; and yes, Jimmy Stewart is unquestionably one of the greatest character actors who ever lived, in perhaps his finest role to boot… but it goes even beyond that. I’d go so far as to say that ol’ George is one of my top five favorite characters in all of cinema, period and now I’ve finally pinpointed why I like him so much. You ready for this?

George Bailey is Spider-Man.

I know, I know, stop edging toward the door… the old geek hasn’t lost his marbles just yet. Obviously I don’t mean he can be seen swinging o’er the rooftops of Bedford Falls in a red-and-blue suit or webbing Mr. Potter to a lamppost. (Though come on, ways to make an awesome movie even better? Huh? Huh?) But the appeal of Spider-Man has always been that he’s the most human, the most relatable superhero out there, and it’s these qualities that draw us to George just as surely as they do to Peter Parker. An idyllic childhood, shattered by the sudden death of a parental figure. A young man with great intelligence and willpower, yet also an overwhelming sense of responsibility to do what’s right that is both his greatest strength and his heaviest burden. Forced to abandon his dreams because of that crippling responsibility, using his intelligence and willpower in a way much different from what he had intended, yet one that ultimately better serves the public. A woman who loves him exactly because of that inner strength and responsibility, despite all the hardships it causes in their lives. Sound familiar? It should, to anyone who’s ever seen either movie… an Everyman is an Everyman, whether he’s crawling up walls or jumping off bridges.

Okay, but putting aside the nerd analogies, the film just plain works because every actor is perfect for their role, transforming what could have been a schmaltzy, eye-rolling piece of tripe and turning it into one of the most effective morality plays of our time. I already mentioned Jimmy Stewart, but it bears repeating: the man carries off the relatable, good-hearted regular guy routine in a way that makes Tom Hanks green with envy, and he treads the delicate line exceptionally well, never letting his performance spill over from pitiable to whiny. Henry Travers gives Clarence the genial yet goofy manner appropriate for a second-class angel, but it’s Donna Reed who truly shines as Mary Bailey. It takes one hell of an actress to go toe-to-toe with Stewart and not suffer in comparison, but give Reed credit — her character radiates the love and quiet inner strength that’s clearly so critical in propping George up and keeping him sane all those years in a job he hates. At the same time, though, she gets to show off some spitfire as well… this is not your stereotypical 50s housewife who sits quietly by and waits for her husband to notice her/bring home money/not go to jail for bank fraud. Sistahs are doin’ it for themselves!

In the end, it’s the movie’s final moments that really get to me, and that I can’t imagine anyone with even a trace of empathy not getting emotional over… if you don’t feel for George as he desperately, passionately begs to be restored to his life, you need a soul transplant, stat. Spiritual trappings notwithstanding, you certainly don’t have to be of any specific religion to identify with the film’s message, and it’s hard to picture anyone being able to fight off a smile, willing or otherwise, as Harry Bailey raises a toast and reminds us all that his big brother truly is “the richest man in town.” Because it’s a universal truth, folks, one that holds true for people of every race, every faith, every culture and creed and social class — no one is a failure who has friends.

Believe it, gang. It really is a wonderful life.

Star of the new children’s book, The Drunkest Little Angel

Intermission!

  • Notice how George is sweating right before he dives in to save Clarence? The temperature was 90 degrees on the backlot where the scene was being filmed.
  • The cop’s name is Bert, the taxi driver’s name is Ernie. Supposedly it’s just a coincidence that the Sesame Street characters share the same names.
  • Ever wonder about that random raven in the office? Its name is Jimmy, and it appears in all of Frank Capra’s movies.
  • During the scene where George cries while praying in Martini’s bar, apparently Stewart was actually weeping, overcome by the emotion of the scene. Capra zoomed in on the shot to better capture the expression on Stewart’s face.
  • Harry Bailey couldn’t have been 9 when he died as Clarence claims, given the dates (1911-1919) on his tombstone. Pffft, no wonder he’s a second-class angel.
  • George sure takes a while to cotton on to things, doesn’t he? If that was me, I’d probably visit one person and then be like, “Guess you were right, I was never born. Huh. Wanna go get a beer?”
  • This was Jimmy Stewart’s first film after returning home from World War II, and he was extremely nervous about filming the scene where he kisses Mary while she’s on the phone. Yet when the time came, he nailed it in one take and was so passionate that part of the scene had to be trimmed to get past the censors.
  • Life performed only marginally well in its initial theatrical run, and in fact failed to recoup its investment. However, when the copyright on it expired in 1973, someone at RKO Pictures forgot to renew it. Noticing this, numerous TV stations began running it around Christmas, and the rest is history. Despite being voted #11 on the AFI’s list of the greatest movies of all time, Life did not win a single Academy Award. However, Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra would each later name it as their favorite movie they’d ever been involved with.
  • The script is said to have contained a scene where Clarence confronts Mr. Potter over stealing the $8000, taking place right after Potter’s “Happy New Year to you… in jail!” The contents of this scene are unknown.
  • When Uncle Billy staggers off drunk from George’s house, he apparently knocks over some trash cans. In actuality, this sound was caused by a stagehand accidentally dropping some equipment, but Mitchell and Stewart continued the scene as if it were intentional, and Capra liked it enough to keep it in the film. He later gave the stagehand $10 for “improving the sound.”
  • For the scene where Mary throws a rock and breaks a window in the abandoned house, Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot it out on command. Ironically, Donna Reed then proceeded to break the window on her own throw without the marksman’s assistance.
  • Prior to this film, snow was simulated in movies using cornflakes painted white; they were so loud crunching underfoot that dialogue had to be dubbed in later. Frank Capra wanted his dialogue to be spoken in the moment, so a new mixture of foamite (fire-fighting chemical), soap, and water was developed as a replacement. This new fake snow garnered a special award for the effects department from the Motion Picture Academy.

Groovy Quotes

    Violet: I like him.
    Mary: You like every boy!
    Violet: What’s wrong with that? 

    George: I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.

    George: Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you’re 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?

    Potter: Look at you… you used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man, a miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees begging for help. No securities, no stocks, no bonds, nothing but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. You’re worth more dead than alive!

    Clarence: You’ve been given a great gift, George — a chance to see what the world would be like without you.

    Clarence: Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?

    Clarence: Your brother Harry Bailey broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.
    George: That’s a lie! Harry Bailey went to war, he got the Congressional Medal of Honor, he saved the lives of every man on that transport!
    Clarence: Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry. You see George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

    George: Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building & Loan! Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!
    Potter: Happy New Year to you… in jail!

    Harry: A toast, to my big brother George: the richest man in town!

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4 Comments

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