Movie Review: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

It really is.

Title: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Director: Frank Capra
Actors: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Score Composer: Dmitri Tiomkin! (a generally awesome composer, being appropriately restrained here, I think)
Length: 130 minutes
Rating (US): Un-rated, since it was before the MPAA system. No objectionable content. Spoiler-free Synopsis: George Bailey, a man who has spent his whole life sacrificing his dreams for others, to seemingly little good effect, is driven to suicidal depression and wishes he had never been born. An angel grants him his wish with the intent of proving to him how valuable his life has been. (hence it qualifies as fantasy. Sorry Clarence.)
Reason for Beginning: Watch it every year, it’s a Christmas tradition!
Reason for Finishing: Great, great movie.
Movie Re-watchability: One of the highest I know. It never grows old, never ceases to move me emotionally. It’s a great movie for cheering you up, because it fully acknowledges the struggles and depression that real people go through in their day-to-day lives, and yet still finds the goodness and warmth in other people that we can be grateful for.
Director Re-watchability: Capra’s a master storyteller. You never quite notice how relevant certain details are while watching one of his movies, because you are so caught up in the emotions onscreen. He plays the audience like an instrument. He manages to be sweet and uplifting without being witlessly saccharine. You want to see his heroes succeed, because they make you believe in something good. And they are sincere. That seems like a quality lacking in many modern stories, since sincerity of goodwill doesn’t mix easily with snark. But Capra loved sincerity in his heroes, and because of that I love his heroes.
Recommendation: Yes. Yes. Yes. You have eyes? You watch movies, ever? You really should see this at least once. And you will probably welcome the chance to see it again and again and again.
Obtainability: The entire movie has been uploaded to YouTube in very high quality, both in its original black-and-white, and the decent colorized version. View it here.

Key Thoughts

It probably wouldn’t do me any good to talk about the cultural importance of It’s A Wonderful Life and how it’s so beloved to us Americans, and yadda yadda yadda. It’s all true, of course, but you can read about that aspect anywhere else. Likewise the plot, which for most Americans is more familiar than our own recent history, and which it is rather pointless to recite anyway, beyond the little blurb above. Describing the plot to someone who hasn’t seen it is likely to make the movie sound very schmaltzy. Yet those who have seen it know it is anything but schmaltz. It’s art.

George running in joy down the street.

You know, I’m not really sure what more to say about this movie. There are all sorts of things that film buffs love to debate about it. Some say it’s a socialist critique of capitalism (I don’t think it is). Some think it’s just a good movie, not a great one (I think it’s great). Honestly I don’t think I have much to add to these discussions. I just really, really love this movie. It forges an emotional connection with its audience. It’s a movie I feel loyal to, that I want to defend against its (very few) attackers and show to everyone who hasn’t seen it. It can be enjoyed equally well alone or with a group. It teaches, and inspires, good morals, without ever being preachy.

Mary Hatch, George's perfect match.

The cast is all very good. The great Lionel Barrymore plays Mr. Potter as perhaps the most callous, infuriating villain in a Christmas movie, ever, out-scrooging Scrooge himself. Donna Reed plays George’s lover and wife Mary as a sweet, strong, and intelligent woman. She proves an excellent match for George, really, loving and understanding both his complex thoughts and simple tastes, sharing his tenderness and sense of justice, and providing a foundation of good common sense to guide his idealism. When his emotions sweep him too hard either up or down, she is there to steady him.

And boy, does he get down sometimes. A lot of people forget just how much hell George Bailey goes through in this movie. He has to forego college and world-traveling in order to protect his father’s poor business (which he hates) from Mr. Potter, the investor who wants to buy up the whole town and turn it into slums. He cancels his honeymoon plans when there’s a panicked rush on the bank, of everyone in town wanting to withdraw their money from his loan business all at once – it’s Mary, his wife, who volunteers their honeymoon money to pay their customers, even though it means they never get time away from the town to just enjoy each other.

In the angel's alternate reality, George sees that the pleasant residential area he was able to develop has become a graveyard, in which some people are buried who would otherwise be alive.

He spends years eeking out a desperate living in a broken down drafty old house, trying to support four kids and a business that’s constantly being preyed on by wealthy and hateful Mr. Potter. His absent-minded uncle loses $8,000 they need to pay off debts, and he faces forced closure and jail and public disgrace, with no hope of recovery. And yet, even when he’s standing on that bridge above the icy river, he contemplates suicide not out of a desire to escape, but because he knows that if he dies his life insurance will give his family what they need to get out of debt. He would even sacrifice his own life for his family’s financial security. A skewed thought, as the movie is all about showing, but still one that shows his selflessness and love of others.

Rewatching the movie a few days ago, I’d forgotten how effective is the early scene with the young George and his employer, Mr. Gower, the druggist. The boy George notices an open telegram behind the counter informing Mr. Gower of the death of his son. He walks cautiously into the back room just in time to notice the grief-stricken man unwittingly fill a prescription with poison; he forces George out to deliver the “medicine” before the boy can tell him what’s happened, being blinded by his extreme sorrow. But George, knowing something is wrong, takes the prescription to his father to get advice. His father being too busy with the villainous businessman Mr. Potter to speak with him, George returns to the pharmacy to find Mr. Gower receiving a call from the patient complaining that the medicine hadn’t arrived yet. Furious and emotionally unstable, the druggist starts to beat George until he cries out the reveal: that the medicine bottle was filled with poison pills accidentally, and that he knows about Gower’s son’s death.

Mr. Gower realizes his terrible mistake, that he almost poisoned a child patient, and begs George for forgiveness.

You can see the look of horror pass over Gower’s face as he comes to his senses; he embraces the boy while weeping and thanking him. It’s such a powerful moment, and expertly played by the actors and director. It nearly always brings tears to my eyes. Even as a boy of 10 or 11, George Bailey understands other people. He cares more about their needs than his own, and he doesn’t overlook people. He’s more mature as a boy than many people ever become in their whole lives.

Various pedestrians were harmed during the taking of this picture; something about the movement of her hips and the flash of her hair making them forget that they're crossing a street where cars drive. Not that the car drivers are watching the road either when Violet walks by.

The large cast of supporting characters gets pretty well fleshed out too, sometimes with subtle hints, or in ways you might take for granted and not particularly notice. Take Violet (played by Gloria Grahame, pictured), the golden-haired town flirt who causes car accidents when she walks down the street. Her character at first seems shallow; her crush on George vanishes when she realizes that his idea of a night of fun involves, well, actually doing fun things (running barefoot in the hills, singing goofy songs to the moon, etc.) instead of just being admired by popular people. Yet she never becomes a negative stereotype, or a ditz. Though she thinks George a bit more weird than romantic, she remains a fast friend of his. She loves fine things and doesn’t have his values of frugality and modesty, but she’s not dishonorable either. She only asks for money from him when she desperately needs it, and is quite genuinely grateful for his generosity. And she lets herself be affected by his goodness. In the end, when the whole town is at George’s house giving money to rescue him from debt, she’s right there with them, telling George that she gave up a dream of her own to help him the instant she heard he was in danger. Also, George’s old childhood friend Sam Wainright, an annoying, insensitive guy who never seems to have grown up. Sam loves money and the high life, and was able to ditch their humble town of Bedford Falls and make it big in the business world. His voice is annoying, he seems unaware of the subtleties of human emotions, and he easily could have become a typical Hollywood jerk. But he’s not – for all his apparent shallowness, he remains a true and fast friend to George all throughout their years. He may love money, but he’s also quite generous with it, quite often offering George whatever he needs. It’s the touches like these that make the movie so special. Capra finds some goodness in everyone – in fact, I even think I detect a teensy bit in Potter himself, courtesy of Barrymore’s performance, though it sadly never becomes manifest. Maybe I’m being too idealistic and forgiving myself towards the character, but hey, that’s the effect this movie has.

One of the most famous images in American film history, and, interestingly, one that instantly says "Christmas" to many of us. Watch Stewart's expressions throughout the movie - he's really brilliant at conveying emotion and thought without words.

If Capra’s films can be summarized by one word, that word is “inspiring.” He specializes in heroes who are both idealistic and clever, who struggle against overwhelming corruption and cynicism for the sake of those they love and what they know is right, and who come close to losing everything in the process. In movies like this one and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the heroes’ victory is really earned by sweat and blood. That’s why they are so satisfying and timeless. We all recognize the stresses that plague George Bailey because they plague us too. We see him fight hard, and get beat down, and almost find relief, only to have to plunge back in; and we are with him when he is so tired and bedraggled and lonely that he just wants to give up because it all seems so hopeless. But somehow he finds the strength to go on, and is given new strength in the end. Capra’s films are so popular because he tells stories about people that we wish we were like, who have the moral strength that we want for ourselves.

I know I have not adequately covered this movie, but hopefully I have revealed why I love it so.

More Screen Captures

Crusty old heartless villain-miser, Mr. Potter.

Clarence, Angel Second-Class, seeks to encourage a seriously depressed George.

George Bailey, played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart.

In the end, George can wish Merry Christmas even to Mr. Potter, whether or not he likes it!

Other Reviews

By a Jewish guy at the blog “Film & Felt
James Berardinelli at Reelviews.com
At Roger Ebert’s Great Movies
It’s A Wonderful Life at Rottentomatoes.com

Credits

Screen captures come courtesy of DVDBeaver.com and the YouTube videos uploaded by TheLionKing94 (which I linked to in the Obtainability section).

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

4 thoughts on “Movie Review: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)”

  1. Maybe my favorite movie, period. So incredible in so many ways. If there’s a movie that says something about the sort of people that we should aspire to be, this is it.

    1. Aye, well said. That’s why I love this movie and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington so much — they assert the importance of virtue and integrity, and give all of us characters to look up to.

  2. I have a feeling I’m going to end up commenting a lot on your stuff.

    I absolutely adore “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I love the fact that you never really know what impact you might have on another’s life, and everyone is important. It might be a bit idealistic, but there is nothing wrong with that and it’s a great tale. But oh – Mr. Potter. Personally, I think he is more evil than the “pure-evil villains” like Voldemort or the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s something about the way he just brings people down and glorifies himself that is so much more powerful and infuriating than just killing people or taking over the world.

    1. Not to deny the terrible reality of evil murderers and dictators, but there’s a lot of truth in what you say. Potter’s evil is of the kind that is technically legal, and thus it’s harder to fight. It’s also of a kind that is far more common than physical violence. Violence of the heart, you might say. Part of the power of this movie is how George learns that the only way to fight such evil, is to learn to love the sinner. “Love your enemies” may be the hardest commandment, but also one of the most important and most powerful.

      Thanks again for the comment — I appreciate them all!

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