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It's a Wonderful Life
1946 - Not Rated - 135 Mins.
Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers
Review by: John Ulmer
Has there ever been a truer and more heartfelt character than George Bailey? This is a man whose life is one of great significance, but he, like all of us, does not always realize that this is so. He does not recognize his impact on the world until an angel erases his existence like chalk on a board. It is then that he is hit by the fact that one man's failing life isn't always as inconsequential as it may seem.

We all remember when Clarence (Henry Travers) first appears on that snowy bridge and saves George Bailey (James Stewart) from committing suicide. He explains nonchalantly that he is an angel and George is incredulous--until Clarence wipes away his entire past. His mother doesn't recognize him. George tells her about his uncle as a source of belief. She states that his uncle has been dead for some time, now.

The best scene in the entire film is that following when George is thrown out by his mother. He runs towards the camera in an intense wide shot, his face registering emotions of fear, horror, and ultimately the horrid understanding of what has happened. This role is the highlight of James Stewart's career--he never came anywhere close to the superb performance he gives in this movie. There is a reason it was his favorite film he ever starred in.

Stewart's portrayal of George Bailey is the grown image of all of us: As a child he dreamed of nothing but exotic locations and adventurous travels to foreign lands. But now he is a family man, a father and a husband. He has left behind his silly bachelor notions, but they still come back to haunt him. Bailey owns the town savings and loan, left to him by his father. The cranky Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) wants complete monopoly over the town, and all that stands in his way is Bailey and his little bank. But Bailey, an inner disgust and hatred towards Potter brewing since his childhood days, refuses to cave in and give it all away.

Then one day, George's absentminded and quite eccentric uncle (Thomas Mitchell), misplaces a large sum of money, leaving George hopeless and Potter with a serious advantage. After blowing up at his wife (Donna Reed) and kids at home, George gets drunk at a local bar, is scorned at by a schoolteacher's wife, and left dazed and confused, walking through the snowy town at night during the happy Christmas season without a hope in the world. Battered and delirious, thinking back over his apparently pointless and wasted life, he contemplates suicide. He prays to God and wishes that he had never existed. Which is why Clarence comes down from heaven to sort things out and answer his prayer.

Frank Capra has had a marvelous influence on the film industry. Films such as "Back to the Future" carry his warm-hearted qualities that clearly shine through in "It's a Wonderful Life." This may be one of the most uplifting movies of all time. Its refreshing and bittersweet message measures in comparison with the moment Del admits to Neal at that Chicago train station that his wife, Marie, has been dead for eight years, and we see them carrying his large trunk back to Neal's for Thanksgiving; or when Isla boards the plane and Rick is left standing with Renault as a companion. ("This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.")

Essentially bombing at the box office when it was first released, and then proceeding to fall into copyright problems for years, "It's a Wonderful Life" resurfaced only years later when it was brought back into the public domain circa 1970. When other channels were airing expensive Hollywood movies during the Christmas season, PBS picked up the film and played it as a counter attack, a weak hope prevailing in them that the classic film buffs out there would tune in. They did. And so did families across the nation. Every year the ratings got stronger and stronger and now, almost sixty years following the movie's initial release, it is considered a holiday tradition.

There are only a few real holiday treats that stick with us over and through the years. One of these is a fairly new classic, John Hughes' 1987 film "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," a movie families flip to every Thanksgiving. The other could be "A Christmas Carol." And perhaps the most famous of all traditional treats is "It's a Wonderful Life," the story of a man who thought his simple little pointless life meant nothing. Until it was erased.

George considers suicide as a way of escaping his problems without really thinking over the possible outcomes given his final choice. He looks back upon his life as wasted potential; he wanted to become an adventurer, break his family's small-town tradition and become something huge. Mentally scanning his life to the point in time when he stands on that bridge, George Bailey believes that he has simply and truly created a waste of space. He's ready to end his (assumed) pointless life when his entire point of view is wholly altered by the power of God. George suddenly realizes that though he never lived out his boyhood fantasies, he did so much more than he ever dreamed of. He saved his brother's life, which resulted in a huge impact in later years; he made an influence in the lives of others and brought peace and harmony to an otherwise small town by prevailing at the requests of Mr. Potter; he married a beautiful wife and had children, all of whom will no doubt have some measure of significance later in the world. And his wish on that bridge was that he had never been born.

"It's a Wonderful Life" openly embraces the idea of God and religion--in fact, the entire basis of the film lies solely upon the fact that there is a God, and that He is up there watching over us, something films nowadays either farce or scorn at. "It's a Wonderful Life" was made during a period when religion was not risky but rather taken for granted; in a day and age when gross-out sexual humor is considered normal fare for any mainstream film, and anything having to do remotely and/or loosely with the idea of God (like 2003's "Bruce Almighty") provokes heated debates across the world, "It's a Wonderful Life" remains a sort of remembrance that at one time, not some fifty years ago, our culture was more comfortable with religion than crude humor, foul language and sexual antics.

Part of my real love for this film comes from the fact that it has a heart, one of undeterminable strength. And whereas some other great films are viewed once and left to gather dust, their surprise twists revealed and therefore not a secret anymore, "It's a Wonderful Life" is in the vein of "Fargo," "Back to the Future," and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," personal favorites of mine that never cease to put a smile on my face and never cease to give me an overwhelming sense of joy. Sometimes bittersweet in the case of the latter film, but nevertheless joyful regardless.

Often I am asked to name my favorite movie, and though I ignore requests and state that I have not seen every existing movie and therefore my judgment carries no significance, I have the lightest whimsy that "It's a Wonderful Life" may be my favorite motion picture to date. I cherish few other films just as close, but to me, "It's a Wonderful Life" is more moving than "Casablanca," a better study of one man's life than "Citizen Kane," and a movie that will live on in the hearts and memory of viewers long after we are gone. I believe that this is the definitive Americana motion picture, regardless of how I compare it to my other favorites, which may carry the same weight but not the same true significance. Few films come as close to the heart as "It's a Wonderful Life." And few films come as close to "It's a Wonderful Life" at all, for that matter.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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