It's A Wonderful Life
Blu-Ray/ /2016 Re-Packaging/70
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A good but slightly ineffectual man tries to off himself after an error that really wasn't his fault. In CHRISTMAS CAROL fashion, his crusty-but-lovable guardian angel shows up to give him a tour of the world without his presence, and it isn't a pretty place. Moral courage, small-town American life, civic cooperation, and family love are glorified; corporate greed and self-involvement are vilified; at the climax, a blanket of snow like spun sugar makes everything pure and clean like redemption itself.
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March Boy awards: Picture, Director-Frank Capra, Leading Actor-James Stewart, Supporting Actor-Lionel Barrymore, Supporting Actress-Donna Reed, Black and White Cinematography, Black and White Costume Design, Black and White Set Design, Screenplay and Film Editing.
It's a Wonderful Life is one of those films (like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and Citizen Kane) where so much has already been said about it you wonder if it's possible to think of something new to add to the table so I won't rehash the plot.
Instead, I would like to ask a question. Supposing Clarence had given George eight thousand dollars or exposed Henry Potter's theft instead of showing him what the world would be like without him. Would that really have solved everything?
I think George's despair and contemplation of suicide went a lot deeper than the possibility of going to prison for his senile uncle's carelessness. At the beginning, you can tell he is a very ambitious but insecure young man. He wants to get out of his lower class and his sleepy little Norman Rockwell town, away from the building and loan he hates so much and make a name for himself--possibly as a building designer, which he considers a more sophisticated profession. Remember the "I know what I'm going to do the next day, the next day and the one after that" speech where he tells Mary all the things he wants to do. But sadly, his dreams are stifled over and over. When he's about to dash out the door of the building and loan, one of the staff members tells him if he doesn't stay behind and take the Chairman seat left by his deceased father, the committee will vote for the greedy, power hungry Mr. Potter to fill the vacancy. So he stays behind and sacrifices his hard earned money for college. In the telephone scene between him and Mary he lets her know he doesn't want any ground floors or plastics; he wants to be his own man. But his love for her prevails over his personal wishes. Once again, on their way home from the wedding, there is a run on the building and loan and they have to sacrifice their hard earned money for their honeymoon to keep the business from shutting down and Mr. Potter from taking it. His younger brother gets more publicity for his heroics overseas--something George could never do because he has only one ear that works. On top of that he is jealous of his friend Sam Wainwright because he drives around in a flashy car and showers his wife with silks, jewels and furs he could never give Mary. And for the last straw, his uncle misplaces eight thousand dollars and the `sacrifice/deny yourself for the sake of the greater good' mentality is so deeply ingrained in George's head that he's willingly to say HE misplaced it and go to jail in his place--whether he likes his uncle or not.
If you pay close attention to famous scene where George comes home and takes his frustrations out on his family at Christmas Eve he knocks over a model bridge and a couple of towers--things HE HAS ALWAYS DREAMED OF BUILIDNG--a powerful, chilling representation of how his aspirations are crashing down for good.
There's a virtue to lowering your expectations and making due with the little bit you have but some people simply have a hard time with practicality and ordinary life and an overly sensitive, imaginative and melodramatic man like George would find it extremely difficult to grasp this concept--even his nemesis Mr. Potter admits he is no ordinary yokel. "Here is a bright, intelligent, ambitious young man who hates his town, hates the building and loan and has been itching to break free from the day he was born."
George is relentlessly hindered from pursuing the things he loves and feels like he is quietly going insane over it, little by little.
What I love best about the film is that the angel doesn't come to make things perfect. He's just there to remind George of all the good he has done for his family and friends, that there will always be injustice in the world, that it can be used as an impetus to the improvement of his character if he chooses and therefore to throw it all away simply due to his bad circumstances would be a great sin. Rather than merely bail him out of his earthly problems, he has done something much better for him--he has encouraged him to adopt a new outlook on life. Now, George no longer cares about his pursuits, no longer hates the building and loan and even wishes Mr. Potter a Merry Christmas!
The townsfolk pitching in to pay the debt is a little unrealistic considering this movie is set during the end of World War Two when in real life they would be pinching pennies while the fathers and sons come back looking for new jobs but even if the film had ended with George being carried off to jail by the crime commissioners after hugging and kissing his wife and children goodbye the film would still have resonated just as powerfully and dramatically because George's REAL problems (spiritual) have been solved.
I wish James Stewart had won the Academy Award for Best Leading Actor of 1946 instead of Frederic March for The Best Years of Our Lives because he got to play a more complex character. We see his insecurities developing layer upon layer as he sacrifices over and over for the `greater good' until the aforementioned Christmas Eve scene. What I love best about his portrayal is that he never makes George look like a cardboard cutout hero. He is loud, bad tempered, strong willed and determined to do what he wants. Probably his best moment is on the bridge where he begs Clarence and then God to get him out of the vision--truly the biggest emotional punch. And his scenes with Donna Reed (like when he teases her with her bathrobe and gives her the cold shoulder when she invites him to her house) are crackling with humor and wit--their "Aaaaand dance by the light of the..." "What?...Oh, oh, yeah. THAT." Alone is award worthy.
The rest of the cast add some nice shading and color and even though they are stock characters they all seem to have their own distinct personality; eccentric Mr. Gower, grouchy, cantankerous Mr. Potter, vain coquettish Violet, sweet, kind Mrs. Bailey, opinionated, loud mouthed Annie, mischievous, flirtatious Harry, how can one forget them?
David Lucero, author of THE SANDMAN