Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Movie Time: Rewind: It's A Wonderful Life
It's Christmas Eve and I thought I better get this month's pick out now before it's to late. With the holidays I thought it appropriate to pick a film about Christmas and when you come to that subject in pre-1976 cinema, there really is only one film, Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
I tried very hard to think of a less obvious film for the holidays, but nothing really has the same scope or invoke the Christmas spirit quite like It's a Wonderful Life. Perhaps next year I will target one of the lesser classics, but for the first one you HAVE to go with this film.
It stars Stewart as George Bailey, a man who is at the end of his rope on Christmas Eve and is close to suicide. As the whole town prays for help for him, two angels heed these prayers and send George his guardian angel, Clarence, played by Henry Travers. They narrate George's life story in a series of flashbacks, accounting for his life until the fateful moment where George finds himself over that bridge.
We lean that George's dream was to travel the world and see all the great sights it has to offer. His dreams are cut short with the passing of his father and the need to stay home in the small town of Bedford Falls and run the Savings and Loan. His bank is the only establishment that isn't owned by the greedy and corrupt Mr. Potter, and as such is the only thing allowing many people to afford homes. He stays at home, with the agreement that his brother will come back after college and take over so he can pursue his own dreams. Life and financial hardships prevent George from ever achieving that dream.
Despite that his mother does introduce him to Mary, played by Donna Reed and they marry, staying in the town. Through the use of their own money, that George had been saving for travel, they help the people of Bedford Falls ride out the collapse of the Bank during the first day of the Great Depression and subsequently try to help people build affordable houses. George continues to help the community at his own expense, unable to serve during the war and staving off bribes from Mr. Potter. Even the brother that he had once saved during childhood is recognized as a war hero.
George's biggest problem starts on Christmas Eve, when his Uncle, who works at the Savings and Loan with him, loses an $8,000 deposit, when in truth it was actually taken by Mr. Potter. Liable for the money and with a bank examiner investigating his books, George desperately turns to Potter for help taking responsibility for losing the funds instead of his Uncle. potter, shocked by this admission and knowing the truth, calls the police, seeing an opportunity to dispose of the rival that has cost him so much over the years.
Seeing his life as a failure, George prepares to kill himself, only to find Clarence jumping before him. Diving in to save him, Clarence tells George that he is his guardian angel and that he wants to help him. George bitterly wishes he had never been born, so Clarence shows him what life would have been like if he hadn't. His wife a bitter spinster, the town, renamed to Potterville, filled with drinking halls and gambling establishments. His brother dead (because he wasn't there to save him_ and all the men that his brother had saved in the war dead. His uncle committed, and the housing community he had built gone, a graveyard for all the people he hadn't helped.
George, returning to the bridge in a panic, desperately pleads with Clarence to live again, finding that he truly had " a wonderful life."
This film is the epitome of both the Christmas spirit and of Capra. During the 1930's and 40's, Capra made many wonderful films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Arsenic and Old Lace, and It Happened One Night. Capra was known for making feel good movies that appealed to the sentimentality of the masses, often times his films were called Capra-Corn, for his use of wholesome, unselfish messages. It's a Wonderful is all that, but Capra finds a way to make his movies appeal to the most basic elements of human nature. He never panders or offers a wink, its a general feeling of well being and the sense that life CAN offer something good if you want it.
Many times his characters are at their darkest just before they find the light, lonely, heartbroken, miserable, or a perceived failure, when they find that there is still good in the world and that one person CAN make a difference. You watch a Capra film to feel good not only about yourself, but about the world. To find that there is something bigger than yourself if you believe.
Capra worked with all of the Hollywood greats over the years, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Jean Arthur, and of course, Jimmy Stewart. Capra loved the everyman, the defining spirit of what it meant to be an American. That was why he has used Gary Cooper so much, and that was why Jimmy Stewart was also one of his favorite actors. Stewart was the embodiment of the everyman, from his work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to this film, audiences responded to his humble on screen persona and aww-shucks mentality. Only he could give Bailey that sense of a guy trying to do the right thing for everyone, but also find the depths of desperation in his own struggles. yet by the end, you believe that he can find what he has been missing. What I really like about Stewart is that this was the first film he made after World War 2. to create such a memorable performance after not having acted in over 5 years 9outside of training and recruitment films) is amazing!
It's a Wonderful Life reminds me about all that is great around Christmas time. It is the one time of year where so many people put aside their personal problems and think about others. Its a time when you remember your family and a time for reminding yourself about all that is possible when people come together for a common purpose. That's what this movie is about and that is why it has become such a beloved classic over the last 60 years. It reminds us that we to have a "Wonderful Life."
This film is certainly required viewing every holiday season. 1946's It's a Wonderful Life, by Frank Capra starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Watch it and remember the true spirit of Christmas.
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