I confess, as much as I grew up loving Christmas and all things connected to it, and despite the hours upon hours my youthful self passed in front of the television or staring at movie screens (I even briefly penned film reviews for my town paper when I was in high school), it was not until my freshman year of college that I first heard of It’s a Wonderful Life. I know, hard to believe — but true. A university classmate introduced me to the 1946 holiday classic; I watched it; I was immediately hooked.
Since then I’ve seen the flick, in whole or part, scores of times. It used to run continually on television between Thanksgiving and Christmas Days, and I would dip in and out faithfully. That was, obviously, before NBC gobbled up its broadcast rights and so now scandalously screens it only a couple times during the season. One of those airings happened the other night, and, needless to say, I caught the last hour of it. Again.
Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, and boasting Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed as its leads, It’s a Wonderful Life recounts the experience of George Bailey, a good-hearted but frustrated family man and building and loan operator, who, grappling with despair, is granted a supernaturally powered and transformative glimpse of the bleaker place the world would be had he never been born. This RKO studio release opened seventy-years-ago to mixed reviews and disappointing box-office receipts (it initially lost money.) Nominated for six Oscars, it garnered merely a single “Technical Achievement Award”. Nonetheless and surprisingly, the motion picture eventually caught on and — in 2016 parlance — “went viral” during its late 1970s spate as Christmastime TV staple.
I’m generally not an automatic fan of old, black-and-white productions. The predictably corny dialogue, clunky plotlines and excessively theatrical acting styles customary to films of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s? And those pseudo-British speech patterns that era’s American actors routinely affected (for some reason, referred to as Mid-Atlantic accents)? Sorry, I find it all particularly off-putting. As vulgar and vile as is too much of modern cinema, I decidedly prefer the DeNiro or Pacino approach of earthy, gritty thespianism — minus the F-bombs and sex-saturation, of course — to the excessively mannered habits of old school Hollywood.
For me, Wonderful Life transcends all these misgivings, however, and remains one of my favorite movies ever. Its story? Luminous. Unapologetically triumphant. Yes, it’s arguably the feel-good flick to outdo all other feel-good flicks. The third act, and especially those waning few minutes in the crowded, cluttered living room of the Bailey’s “wonderful, old, drafty house”, are simply irresistible. When, finally, the Bedford Falls folk are packed around a dumbstruck-with-joy, laughing, beaming George and Mary Bailey (Stewart and Reed), bellowing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Auld Lang Syne”? Then Harry Bailey gets toasting, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town”? Fuggehdaboutit: I’m floating. Every time.
Stewart is, flatly, magical; a revelation. He reportedly christened the movie his favorite among all he made — and perhaps that explains the compelling strength of his turn. His performance serves up none of the stuffy, stiltedly artificial overacting so common to that era. George Bailey comes across — even captured on drab black-and-white celluloid — not as a manufactured movie persona, but a real human being trapped in a heartbreaking, then frantic, then fantastical situation.
At points, he’s uttering tender and, what end up being, his final words to his father; then puckishly teasing then-future wife Mary; and later clownishly prancing around the office when he manages to rescue his business from collapse. His character variously rages at the befuddled Uncle Billy, spits contempt at the malevolent Mr. Potter, barks irritably at Clarence the Angel and snarls threateningly at Bert the Cop. Desperation suffocatingly mounts in George as he realizes the people and familiar realities he’d taken for granted have been erased — only for him to plunge into euphoria when they all come crashing joyfully back into his life. Across the spectrum, Stewart’s George Bailey is thoroughgoingly, joltingly convincing.
Sure, some critics have sniffed at this heaven-invading-earth drama. Upon Wonderful Life‘s release, The New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther, charged “the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality.” Huh? — It’s a Wonderful Life, sentimental? Ya think? I thought that was sort of the point — and I mean that in the best possible sense.
Similarly, the New Yorker‘s John McCarten panned the film as “chock-full of whimsey” and stranded in the “doldrums”. A half-century on, Salon scribe Gary Kamiya, proffered the patently incomprehensible view that life in the film’s Bedford Falls delineates “a tiresome and, frankly, toxic environment”. It’s candidly difficult not to wonder if the problem, actually, is the bracing, homespun values ultimately celebrated in this tale are simply too much for the more “sophisticated’ set to endure.
Capra unsubtly avowed the movie’s theme to be “the individual’s belief in himself” and that he made it “to combat a modern trend toward atheism”. Saccharine? Perhaps a bit, but is it intolerable to suggest our increasingly jaded age — even more so than the 1940s of Frank Capra’s generation — direly needs a dose of what It’s a Wonderful Life has to offer? A reminder, that is, that thunderous accomplishments or globe-trekking adventures don’t, automatically, a meaningful existence make; that sometimes it’s the family God has given us, the friendships we’ve developed, the people we’ve come to help through our own often unassuming and unheralded efforts that matter most?
Seems like many moviegoers agree: nearly twenty years ago, the American Film Institute ranked it as number eleven on its 100 best American films ever made; third-best in its fantasy category; number one on its list of the most inspirational American flicks of all time. On the Rotten Tomatoes movie review website, It’s a Wonderful Life commands a remarkable 94% “Fresh” rating. That’s lots of cinephiles snubbing the world-weary cynics and tossing a big thumbs up to this holiday classic.
In the midst of “Season’s Greetings” are there folks who are discouraged? Who’ve lost hope? Individuals who’d benefit from an emotional shot in the arm? Who could use a quick refresher in what he/she ought to value most?
If so — and I know they’re out there — these ought to set aside a few hours on Christmas Eve. I’m pretty sure It’s a Wonderful Life will be broadcasting once more that night.
Image: By National Telefilm Associates – Screenshot of the movie, Public Domain, https://commons.