For the tenth film of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . a film that I think everyone in the Western world must have watched at some time or another over Christmas.
When It’s A Wonderful Life was released in 1946 The Second World War had been over for around a year and audiences were looking for a different type of film, a type that reflected how they felt at the time – like, David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Audiences didn’t want sentiment – they wanted a harder edge to their films and although It’s A Wonderful Life was nominated for Best Picture of 1946 it lost out to The Best Years of Our Lives, and from there it sank without a trace.
Well, almost . . .
That terrible enemy of cinema – television – was to be its unwitting saviour. The networks were able to buy Frank Capra’s slice of Americana at a bargain-basement price and show it over the Christmas season and it was from there that it slowly began to build an audience. Word-of-mouth spread the news that here was a Christmas film that perfectly reflected the sentiments of the season.
It stars James Stewart as the compassionate but despairing local businessman George Bailey and the stunningly gorgeous Donna Reed as his sweetheart Mary Hatch. Lionel Barrymore is the bitter and twisted Mr Potter and Thomas Mitchell, who had won an Oscar for his role as the alcoholic doctor in John Ford’s magnificent Stagecoach (1939), plays eccentric Uncle Billy. I’m not in the slightest bit religious but George Bailey’s Guardian Angel, Clarence (played beautifully by the wonderful British actor Henry Travers) always warms the cockles of my heart. And if that wasn’t enough, it was directed by the great Frank Capra.
It’s A Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, whose dreams of travel and adventure are dashed when he is forced to take over the family business after his father dies, after which he settles down, gets married, has kids, and all while having to fight the town’s evil tycoon who wants to take control of the town. He is holding on by fingernails until something happens that makes him realise that he is financially worth more to his family dead than alive and he contemplates suicide. This is where Clarence (literally) jumps in. When George claims that everyone would be better off if he had never been born, Clarence grants him that wish and shows George what life would have been like if he had never existed.
Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. Although this is an almighty emotional sucker punch of a movie, it is by far the most uplifting film I think I have ever seen. It shows that no matter how small or insignificant we think we are, we all play a part in the great tapestry of life and our lives touch so many others without us even realising it.
James Stewart, one of the Hollywood System’s finest actors, delivered a multi-layered performance and proved that there was a darker side to him. He was to Hollywood then what Tom Hanks is today – the everyman, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Stewart never played a bad guy and neither has Tom Hanks for that matter, but both actors are capable of delivering intense characterisations that show the darker side of essentially good men.
James Stewart’s performance in It’s A Wonderful Life was what Alfred Hitchcock remembered and was instrumental in his casting him as the doomed, acrophobic Private Detective, Scottie, in his masterpiece Vertigo (1958), his darkest and most ambiguous film (and also probably the best film ever made by anyone anywhere).
My wife and I went to see it in 2007 at a special screening on Christmas Eve at the multiplex just outside Basingstoke and it was a magical experience, apart from the drunk man who had decided to sit next to me and who fell asleep within two minutes of the film starting and didn’t wake up until I nudged him as the credits were rolling at the end.
How anyone can fall asleep – no matter how drunk they are – during this marvellous film is beyond me. It’s a film that moves along at a lightning pace – there’s always something happening. It makes you laugh and it makes you cry (the scene where young George is bashed about the ear by the drunk and distraught druggist Mr Gower (he’s just received a telegram informing him that his son had been killed in action) for not delivering a potentially lethal prescription and the subsequent realisation of his actions gets me every time).
And yes, like all of Capra’s films it’s unashamedly sentimental.
And what’s wrong with that?
Oh, by the way, like Scrooge (1951), avoid the colorized version of this film at all costs.