My mom and I share my #1 film, but my dad’s personal favorite at least made it to my #4. My highest black-and-white film, It’s a Wonderful Life stands out as Frank Capra’s best film, sentimental in the best sense of the word, full of moments that inevitably bring my dad to tears. My mom loves it too, having first seen it after learning it was Roger Ebert’s favorite film back in the 80s. Though not successful upon release, it has grown in esteem over the years to become one of those perennial Christmas traditions, a reminder of all that can be good in this world.
In addition to a splendid screenplay, the casting is excellent. Jimmy Stewart is the ideal everyman, whether as a decent Joe Schmo in a world of dirty politics or a selfless son/brother/husband/father that changes his town in ways he never could have imagined. Here his acting talent is at its most diverse, evoking a wide range of deeply felt emotions, from disappointment to helpless despair to rebounding joy that tugs effortlessly on every viewer’s heartstrings. Other examples of exceptional casting include a glowing Donna Reed as Mary Bailey, Thomas Mitchell as forgetful Uncle Billy, child-like Henry Travers as guardian angel Clarence Odbody, and Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, an utterly despicable villain in a town of otherwise pleasant folk.
Watching the film now, after so many prior viewings, it’s hard to believe that George Bailey could consider himself a failure, after saving a couple of lives and personally presiding over happy homecomings (most people don’t even do that). Yet the microscope of anxiety leads him to cruel panic, and a series of hardships, one after the other, plausibly drives him to consider suicide. While the film implies that guardian angels are deceased humans (which isn’t true), the intervention of Clarence is more charming and divinely sent than, say, the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. In trying to convince George of his own worth, the film serves as encouragement for its audience. Who hasn’t felt like a failure at some point in his/her life? Who hasn’t wondered if it was all for naught? Yet, like the tapestry argument about how focusing on one thread does not comprehend the full pattern, we never know how and how often our lives touch others’. By now, the interconnection of lives has become a well-worn lesson, from Liberty Mutual commercials to countless films, but It’s a Wonderful Life does it best, giving a full sense of just how essential one man can be to the happiness of an entire town.
My VC and I had a brief debate over whether the film could be considered a “meet-‘em-and-move-on” movie. I at first thought so because of the many people with whom George interacts throughout his life and the infinitely feel-good reunion of an ending. Yet she pointed out that, even if George doesn’t fully appreciate all his friends until the end, nobody really moves on. It all takes place in the same quiet little New York town, a place George at first views as a cage but, like nostalgic viewers, eventually comes to appreciate it as his home. (By the way, the entire town of Bedford Falls was one long outdoor set.) Thus, while It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t technically a “meet-‘em-and-move-on,” it does bear certain similarities, especially by the jubilant end. (Again by the way, as wonderful as it is for everyone in town to donate to George, it probably wasn’t enough to make up for the missing $8,000; it really all came down to his friendship with wealthy Sam Wainwright. Hee-haw!)
Though his films were often derided as “Capra-corn,” Frank Capra was certainly one of the great early Hollywood directors, simply choosing to focus on the good, the charming, and the uplifting rather than the more cynical stuff some critics prefer. His personal favorite of his films, It’s a Wonderful Life exemplifies simple, feel-good messages in an entertaining package sure to break and warm the heart.
Best line: (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?”Rank: 60 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
284 Followers and Counting