Dec 23, 2014

Review: It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Despite seeing tons of movies and making a habit of watching nothing but Christmas movies for the whole month of December, I had never seen It's a Wonderful Life until two years ago. I'd seen snippets of it shown on TV and I'd even seen parts of it that were shown in other movies, usually Christmas ones of course. For me, it was definitely a long time coming for a movie that had become an undeniable holiday staple in North America.

Despite a pretty unconvincing performance at the box office in 1946, It's a Wonderful Life was able to become the popular classic that is because of how much it was shown on TV during the holidays starting in the late 1970's. Capra has called it his favourite of his movies and even James Stewart has as well. One thing's for sure though, It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas fixture just as much as Christmas trees, turkey dinners and socks as presents are.

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Genre: drama, family, fantasy
Directed by: Frank Capra
Produced by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Running time: 130 minutes
Production company: Liberty Films
Distributed by: RKO Radio Pictures, Corona Film, M & A Alexander Productions Inc., etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $3,180,000
Box office: N/A

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Frank Albertson, Virginia Patton, Charles Williams, Sarah Edwards, William Edmunds

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Synopsis


George Bailey's (James Stewart) father (Samuel S. Hinds) owns and operates the Bailey Building and Loan Association in Bedford Falls which is one of the few establishments not under Mr. Potter's (Lionel Barrymore) control. George has dreams of traveling and doing big things, but those plans are shelved again and again as the years go by. Despite being presented with easier paths throughout his life, George has fought to keep man's dream of having a decent roof over his head alive and it has driven him into utter despair and depression. Clarence (Henry Travers) the angel is sent to Earth in order to lend George a helping hand.


Review


Without a doubt, the story of It's a Wonderful Life is what keeps things much more than just afloat during its 130 minutes. The movie soars when things are going well and it sinks to the deepest depths when things are going badly. I don't mean that it's a melodramatic movie or anything because that's not the case at all. Goodrich, Hackett and Capra have simply put together a really nice story that pulls at the heartstrings of even the coldest cynic. Watching this from start to finish is pretty much guaranteed to makes your eyes at least water a little bit.

One of my favourite scenes of when things are going badly occurs in the Building and Loan. (Spoilers) George has just gotten married to Mary (Donna Reed) and they're on their way for their honeymoon when they see the crowds standing outside the bank and the B&L. George opens the doors and lets everyone shuffles inside. Things are quiet as the grave while Uncle Billy's (Thomas Mitchell) pet crow caws, hinting at what's to come. (End Spoilers) It's just a beautifully crafted and subtle scene.

It's a Wonderful Life also features some great characters who are all played to perfection. James Stewart is the best example of that, pairing enthusiasm and boyish charm as George Bailey. His desire to travel and leave Bedford is made very clear and Capra does a great job at making you feel for him whenever his plans go awry. Stewart humanizes George Bailey from his highs and his lows to spectacular effect.

Lionel Barrymore is the other actor who deserves a lot of credit in IaWL as Mr. Potter. I've probably never heard such a cold voice before in my life. While being a very intelligent and calculating man, Potter is also cruel, heartless and is quite possibly one of the greatest film villains of all time. What's scary is that there are probably people like Mr. Potter who exist in the real world which makes him even more terrifying.

I'm also a really big fan of the relationship building between George and Mary. Starting even when they were kids, (Spoilers) they're finally brought together in a pretty intense scene at Mary's house while a scandalized and disappointed Mrs. Hatch (Sarah Edwards) looks on (End Spoilers). George and Mary's relationship is a great example of patience as well as utmost and tasteful sweetness.

Religion is actually a pretty big part of It's a Wonderful Life and it's refreshingly incorporated. Despite having an angel as a character and quite a few scenes involving characters praying, Capra magnificently avoids turning this into a preachy Christian movie and I love it for that. IaWL is a very positive representation of religion in a film and you don't need to be religious to appreciate that aspect.

There are some editing issues in certain places, but these problems are really easy to ignore. As I had said at the start, It's a Wonderful Life is all about the story and it's one that's worth seeing every single year. Capra gives us a great look at how low a person can get while balancing that out with hope, joy and love. In the future, I bet It's a Wonderful Life will be used to identify humans from robots because no human can't feel at least something by the end.

Rating


9/10