There are movies and there are MOVIES! IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is A MOVIE!
It is hard to believe now but IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE dropped a great, big bomb when it first appeared in 1946. Post World War II Americans had endured hardship after hardship, both overseas and on the homefront, and were not in a mood for Frank Capra’s usual cornball philosophies, or to see beloved all-American stars like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed playing such dark material — the story is, after all, about a man on the brink of suicide. “It seesaws”, said one critic, “between sugar-coated candy and out-and-out nihilism.” Moviegoers stayed away in droves.
It was saved from sure oblivion by, of all things, television. Beginning in around 1970, networks began running it, relentlessly, as their holiday fare, especially late night programming. It caught on with a popularity that, to this day, has yet to let up and has made it one of the most essential of holiday stories, if not THE most loved story in the history of cinema.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is that rare bird—a perfect movie. Like a Mozart symphony, it hasn’t a false or an unnecessary note in it; not one blink of an actor’s eye, not one sigh, not one footstep rings untrue. A masterpiece of acting, of content, of direction, of costuming, of message, of anything—try to find a flaw in even one of its 130 minutes. You can’t. Once seen, its faces, its story, its uncontrived magic are never forgotten. It imprints itself inside you, its ready-made comfort as reassuring as taking your favorite holiday ornament out of the box each year, the one you hadn’t remembered you liked so much. Its characters become old friends, people as real to us as our neighbors and co-workers. Every time we see George Bailey and his family and friends, we re-live with them again the heartaches they weather, the joys they share. They become our heartaches, our joys.
The story in a nutshell—George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a decent, smart, hard-working, ambitious young fellow hopes to ditch the dust of his little hometown, Bedford Falls, to seek his fame and fortune in the great, wide world. But every time he tries to leave, something or someone in need of his help stops him from going, until the years eat him up and he is a married man with too many children, too many bills, a dilapidated house, and a doozie of a financial mess that pops up out-of-the-blue, the final nail, shall we say, in the rotten coffin of his miserable existence.
Jimmy Stewart plays George. Stewart was as American as the Washington Monument, the Flatiron Building. He was always there, or so it seemed. His unique being was made for movies, as if the Cosmos had fashioned, from its electric fibers, a look, a voice, a demeanor that turned the many stories it told into white gold. I cannot think of one, single actor who matches him for a perfect mix of pure star quality and ordinariness. He was the boy-next-door, the corner druggist, your first love crush, the favorite English teacher, the guy who rescues your cat from the well it fell into but doesn’t take any thanks, “Aw, shucks. It warn’t nuthin’.” Stewart’s great gift (of many) is that he could play “real.” By all accounts, it was no act—his friends and co-workers said he was quite the nicest fellow you would ever want to break bread with, smart and kind, and as humble as someone of his stature and international fame could be. It is our great good fortune that God dropped him down into Hollywood and blessed our movies with his spirit.
Besides Stewart, some of moviedoms most beloved players are here: Donna Reed, the great Lionel Barrymore, yes, and also Beulah Bondi,Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, Frankie Faylen, and Henry Travers whose performance as Clarence the Angel gives new meaning to the word “delightful!”
The fantasy elements of the film, the angel and the time tunnel sequences are so seamlessly, skillfully woven into the fabric of the story, we accept them unconditionally as fact, not fiction. Everyone’s performances are infused with a beauty and a truth that never ages. The faces of the characters remain the same, even after repeated viewings, shimmering from within like Christmas tinsel or icicles winking in the warmth of a winter sun. There is nothing saccharine or cloying about George’s problems: financial ruin, mistrust, arrest, suicide. These are not situations to be given a sugar coat, and director Capra does no such injustice to them. He believes in the intelligence of his audience, and Stewart et al. deliver such serious portrayals, devoid of caricature, we trust every word they deliver, every deed they set into motion. No performance is forced, every act of one character is measured, realistically, against the action taken by another. The absence of artifice is beautiful to behold.
The black-and-white cinematography is rich, deluxe, almost cashmere; it calls to you to reach up to the screen and touch it. You want to!
An almost religion has sprung up around IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE over the decades. There is a definite holy feeling to the fever and fervor with which the world has embraced it. (I once knew a man who chose to forego his annual Christmas Midnight Mass in favor of watching it every year. “It’s my celebration.”)
It does go down as satisfyingly as a mug of hot chocolate on a cold night, as reassured and reassuring as the turning of the seasons. It is of a certain time and yet it is timeless. Bedford Falls is as real to us as all the hometowns we knew, or imagined we knew. As our modern-day world reduces itself to a world we do not recognize, a stranger sometimes, we run back to Bedford Falls, and to George Bailey’s world, as if into our mother’s arms, as if into a dog’s warm nuzzle against our coat, as if to a schoolteacher’s pat on our shoulder for a job well done. For the world of George Bailey is a place we will always feel safe and sane in, a place beyond fear and disappointment and loss, a place where love waits to be found.
That movie, I swear, was made not in an RKO Culver City studio lot but in some Cosmic Movie Paradise; it moves beyond mere storytelling into that realm where sublime revelation is attained. Its storyline lowers us, along with dear George, down to the depths of utter despair, then lifts us up into absolute exultation and, in that way, is positively cathartic. The most cold-hearted Scrooge among us thaws after experiencing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. It is as carefully drawn as anything Dickens or Twain wrote about the complexities of the human condition, about the struggles and sufferings of the ordinary man, his will to survive, his belief in self-sacrifice, in loyalty, in hard work, in justice and yes, in miracles!
It, itself, is a miracle. The core of its power lies in the bravery it displays in unashamedly saying what it feels is most important in life. Not money. Not power. Not fame or glory but the special love of a man for his family and friends, and the singular difference one little life can make in the world. What better gift can you give yourself this Christmas than to hurry down to the Brattle to remember that this is, indeed, a Wonderful Life!