It’s a Wonderful Life turns 70. The Frank Capra film which was based on a short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern premiered on December 20, 1946. The film plays homage to Stern when the angel Clarence, played by Henry Travers, is given the opportunity to earn his wings by saving Bedford Falls banker George Bailey, played by James Stewart, from taking his own life, which the heavenly voice describes as “the greatest gift”.
While both Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra have described It’s a Wonderful Life as one of their favorite films, the film’s initial release received a lukewarm response from critics. Bosley Crowther, a New York Times film critic who published his review on December 23, 1946 praised the performances of Stewart, Donna Reed, who played George’s wife Mary, Beulah Bondi who played his mother Mrs. Bailey, and Thomas Mitchell who played his Uncle Billy, but he described the performance of the legendary Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter as a “caricature” of Ebenezer Scooge from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Henry Travers’ s angel Clarence as “too sticky”.
However, Crowther’s biggest issue with the film was its sentimentality. “Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.” (www.nytimes.com/movie/review/ It’s a Wonderful Life)
As someone who has probably seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” fifty times, every time I see it, it resonates even more with me as being a truthful reflection of the emotional struggles that we all face. The film continues to find new fans among new generations because it offers up a hopeful message. It reminds us that we are not alone. As angel Clarence says, “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?”
Yes, this is why so many of us love this old chestnut of a film because it reminds us that our time on earth has meaning to those around us and that we should be grateful for the other people whom we meet along the way. This awareness is “the greatest gift”.
Image: by Insomnia Cured Here; https://www.flickr.com/photos/tom-margie/11379231463/; CC by-SA 2.0