Monday, 26 December 2011

The Essential Films: "It's a Wonderful Life"

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

When a film becomes as iconic and quintiessential as Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, it's interesting to look at the film just as a film in order to see what makes it a great film; particularly since for those who have never seen it or haven't seen in some time, it's a much different film than one might expect or remember.

In talking about what makes It's a Wonderful Life a great film, you have to start with James Stewart.  I mentioned in an earlier post how I fee there's a certain stigma against movie stardom nowadays, a feeling that a movie star can't be a real actor. It's the type of generalization people like Emma Stone or Arrested Development's David Cross believe. Stone feels no one who is famous can play a real person. I feel Stewart is the ultimate defense against this accusation. Stewart, maybe even more so then Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, or Tom Hanks, captured the every day American man. He represented what the American man was and what he could be. I don't know if any other actor, even Fonda, could have been effective as George Baily. In essence Stewart is George Baily. It's a performance of compassion, anger, despair, joy and understatement. We both can sympathize yet by the end of the film somewhat envy George's wonderful life. 

This brings me to another major reason for the film's greatest, which is it's ageless message. The film says even if a man leads a humble life, he still has incredible value, that his life positively affects those around him, and a man who had friends is no failure. It's a beautiful message, which makes the film endure. I have a slightly mixed feeling towards it though. While we see George has led a wonderful life, saving his brother, making his town a better place and marrying a beautiful woman, I still hope I can leave Halifax one day and make it as an actor, novelist, director, etc. Thankfully, the film never criticizes George for his dreams. Rather, it's incredibly sympathetic to how George is constantly faced with tough decisions, leading him to make compromises. But it's through these compromises that George becomes a great man.

What I admire about the film is how it earns it sentimental ending. In the final half hour or so, George falls in to dispair when Uncle Billy loses $8,000 for the Building and Loan. Fearing imprisonment and feeling his life has been worth nothing, he plans to committ suicide. When George's guardian angel Clarence ( shows him a world where he was never born, it's a harrowing vision of a completely changed Bedford Falls. This sequence truly makes us think about how we affect the world around us. By the time George comes back to his own reality, we can share George's joy, particularly when the town helps George.

The film is arguably most famous for its final half hour or so.  It doesn't even become a Christmas movie until almost an hour an half in. In this first hour and a half, it'a quinitessential Capra film. Capra was a humanist filmmaker, concerned with the plight of the American citizen. The villain is Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a selfish big business type who was the kind of villain Capra used in his films. I wish the film had tried to make Potter slightly more complex because as he's being insulted, I somehow felt there was something about a man like this.

While It's a Wonderful Life is very much a Frank Capra film, It's hard to pin down the film to one genre. It's a drama, a comedy, a romance, a Christmas movie and a fantasy. The romance between George and Mary (Donna Reed) is sweet and Stewart and Reed do a good job of showing how their romance develops from their teenage years in to their 30s. The fantasy element doesn't take the film out it's groundedness but surprisingly makes the film darker.

It's a Wonderful Life doesn't encourage us to give up our dreams. Rather, it says no matter how big our dreams get, we should always remain humble and selfless. George Bailey's selflesness is what made him a great man. George is not only who we are but what we can all ultimately be.

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