I grew up in a house with out air conditioning. Thus in the sweltering heat of a Minnesota summer night, my family and I would “camp” in our basement, turn on a huge fan and watch Christmas movies to beat the heat, many of which my mom had taped off TV and compiled into a series of collections. This was actually one of my first experiences with Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film It’s A Wonderful Life. This movies, along with the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and Holiday Inn were recorded off of TV broadcasts by my mother and usually placed near the middle or very end of the tape, which mom usually popped in the VCR when it was time to go to bed, and I’d be asleep before they started.
It wouldn’t be until I was in Junior High that I could successfully sit down and watch them, but it would take a half a semester of college for me to really appreciate many of these old classic Christmas movies. Chief among them is It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact every Christmas I’ve made a point to watch this movie. Despite an apparent love that I have for science fiction, fantasy, action and adventure movies, this quaint old film holds a special place in my heart.
In many ways it could be called a fantasy film. After all, it is through supernatural means that our hero is able to “time travel” and visit an alternate universe. However, to call simply ascribe such a genre label would be to deny the heart of this story, much like how it would be disingenuous to simply call Dicken’s Christmas Carol a “ghost-story”. The fantastic element is the vehicle with which the story and it’s themes about the profound impact that one life can have on those around theme are conveyed.
Much like its hero, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life initially seemed like a failure. For one thing the movie reportedly had a 3 million dollar budget and made only 3.7 million at the box office, receiving mixed reviews, and did not win any major Oscars. It faded until obscurity until a little invention known as “the television”. Most surprisingly, for a film that is now seen as a good ode to good old fashioned American values today, upon its release the FBI issued a scathing memo, believing that Capra intended to discredit bankers and businessmen for the Communist Party. This is despite the fact that the film’s director, Frank Capra, made films for the War Department, and actor Jimmy Stewart was a war hero during World War II.
It was TV that saved the film, as the copyright expired and it briefly fell until public domain. This lead to a point in time in which viewers could find It’s A Wonderful Life at least 75 times during the Christmas season on numerous channels until Paramount bought the film and has maintained copyright on the film to this day. But during that window of time in which it was under public domain, it managed to secure a place as a beloved part of many holiday traditions on par with Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. In fact, director Frank Capra and stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed called it their most favorite film on their filmographies. Stewart even went so far as to tell Phillip Van Doren Stern, the man who wrote the original short story that inspired the film,
“An inspiration to everyone concerned with the picture… the fundamental story was so sound and right.
It’s easy to see why. By now, we all know it’s story, as it has been parodied, and referenced in many other films and TV shows, Batman and Robin even made a point to watch it in a Christmas episode of Batman: The Animated Series. However. if these parodies and takes on the story tell us anything, it’s that a story like this always bares another telling. One Christmas Eve the family and friends of George Bailey in the town of Bedford Falls are praying for him. The prayers reach Heaven and an angel, Clarence, is shown all the events leading up to this moment.
From his childhood in which he saved his brother from drowning to preventing a distraught pharmacist, Mr. Gower, from accidently poisoning a child, Bailey was always an unlikely hero. Time after time, he’s given the chance to leave Bedford Falls and shuffle off the family business, a building and loan corporation, but at every opportunity he chooses to make the difficult choice and sacrifice his personal goals to help not only his family’s company, but the town. In time he marries his childhood sweetheart, Mary and they raise a family together.
The years pass, and George is older and has more or less settled into his life as Bedford Falls number one citizen. Meanwhile the town miser, Henry F. Potter has been conspiring against the Bailey family or years, looking to take it over. Then when George’s brother returns home a war hero for saving an entire troop transport, Potter is given a chance. Senile Uncle Billy accidently leaves the day’s deposits in his newspaper while rubbing it into Potter’s nose the good news about George’s brother.
When George comes to Harry asking for help, Old Man potter not only refuses but calls the police to issue a warrant for his arrest. This sends Bailey over the edge. After lashing out at his family George races out into the night and is about to jump of the bridge when he sees Clarence in the water bellow and saves him. Clarence gives George a gift: a glimpse at what the world would be like wit out him. In this alternate universe his brother is dead, and thus, because of it, his brother did in the accident and never saved a troop transport. The pharmacist went to jail, and the whole town was bought out by Potter. He also found that his wife wasn’t better off without him, as despite other men seeming to vie for her affections, she ended up an old maid.
At last, seeing how worse the world would be without him, George prayed that he wanted to live again and on that moment he was back in the right world. He returned home to find that his wife had made some calls and all his friends and family contributed more than enough money to make up for the lost deposit, George saw that he was in fact the richest man in town.
While it’s easy to write the movie off as cheesy and sentimental, mainly due to what was known as “Capra-corn”, Frank Capra’s film, like many of his other works is a tribute to the American idea of the individual. Whether it’s George Bailey, in It’s A Wonderful Life, or the eponymous freshman politician in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra’s films specialized in the story of an ordinary person rising to the occasion to make a profound difference in his community. And indeed, it’s George that makes that difference.
He is able to talk an old friend to buying a long closed factory in Bedford Falls, thereby bringing jobs to the town, instead of building in Rochester, NY. His financing helps build good homes for the citizens, allowing them a chance to move up in the world. Even his most inconsequential actions: saving his brother and Mr. Gower have a tremendous impact on the town and even the country.
Playing George is the affable everyman actor Jimmy Stewart. While his voice has often been the subject of parody, there is a certain down home, folksy charm about him. He isn’t a tough, grizzled all American hero, he’s one of us .We can see ourselves as George, and in fact with the exception of Tom Hanks, few actors can play that ordinary person so well, and still make him appealing. Stewart’s George is honest trustworthy, and decent, the kind of person you would more than willingly not only want with whom you would wish to conduct business, but the kind of person that would make for a great friend.
You feel his sense of urgency, and despondency at the films climax. Though it does help that the movie was filmed during a heat wave in LA, which is part of the reason in many key shots in the “Potterville-verse” George is visibly sweating and fatigued. It makes his break-down all the more palpable and believable. Stewart’s performance, coupled with the behind the scenes magic, only helps to further the feeling that Mary and the kids have when they say something is wrong with him. They know it, they can see it, and so can we.
In contrast is Lionel Barrymore as the wealthiest man in town, Mr. Potter. Decades before Lex Luthor would become the corrupt mogul the world loved to hate, Lionel Barrymore sneered and schemed his way in cinema, on his long game plan to own all of Bedford Falls. In fact he is perhaps the most irredeemable villain on film. This is, after all, a man who has no qualms against gaslighting Uncle Billy, or driving George to suicide. Bailey at one point compares him to a spider and rightfully so. Potter spins his webs and grows fat on the lesser people in town, and camera angles even place Potter on platforms above the rest as though he considers himself a god.
The rest of the cast helps fil the town with a lovable assortment of what Mr. Potter calls “Local yokels” including H.B. Warner as Mr. Gower the pharmacist, Todd Karns as George’s brother Harry, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver ( who were actually not the namesake for Sesame Street’s resident duo), actor/producer Sheldon Leonard as Nick the Bartender, Samuel S. Hinds as George’s father and as Thomas Mitchell the forgetful Uncle Billy.
But the real anchor of the supporting cast for George is his beloved wife Mary, played by Donna Reed who perfectly plays the most ideal grown-up childhood sweetheart. There is a sweetness to her, but she has just the right amount of spunk and intelligence to balance it out. From a mischievous glance to George when he comes calling are hilarious, to a longing gaze at George, she was capable of saying a lot with a little.
Clarence Oddbody may not strike any one as remotely angelic, after all the angels in the Bible do say “Fear Not”. But there is something warm, gentle and approachable about Henry Travers portrayal as the rumpled down angel trying to earn his wings. A more majestic angel by be more “epic and grand” but at this dark point in George’s life he needs that gentleness to guide him out. And when Clarence does earn his wings, it is very deserving and heart felt, especially when he leaves George with a reminder of what really matters.
There are plenty of memorable moments in the film, from George and Mary throwing rocks at an old beat up house to make a wish, to the classic ending scene, to George offering Mary the moon, to the hilarious moment during a dance at a graduation party where the gym floor opens up and every one jumps into the pool. In fact, when I was in Junior High the pool scene was my favorite moment, and it’s one to this day that I’d love to try to recreate at a few dances I’ve attended.
But as I’ve grown older it’s the ending of the film that becomes my favorite, and inevitably leaves me reaching for a tissue. Because as great as these moments are what has made this movie last for 70 years it’s the films heart and it’s life affirming message. We want to believe that we have some level of worth and importance, that the choices we’ve made have been a boon, not a curse. We want to know that there are those in our lives who love us. We want to know that even if our wildest dreams don’t come true, it’s still possible to have a wonderful and meaningful life. That’s what Clarence showed George and that’s what they have shown all of us over the years and will continue to do so.