It has been said that this film has every western cliché in the repertoire: dance hall floozy who’s a good girl at heart, trusty sidekick, shooting contest with incredible demonstrations of marksmanship, heroic stand by the Calvary, noble but inevitably defeated Indians, climactic shootout for two… even Wyatt Earp. Yet, Casablanca-like, the film gets away with a bevy of stock situations and even stock characters because every performance is so strong. The subtleties of the most subsidiary characters come across in a believable and refreshing way.
Prominent among the James Stewart films most often shown on television in the 1960s and ’70s were the five westerns that he made with director Anthony Mann. Despite this exposure, Mann, though something of a successor to John Ford in the genre of more psychologically complex westerns, is arguably not as well known today. Perhaps this is because he was considered more of a craftsman than an actor’s director, but in the western films Stewart made with him, the actor emerged as more understated, and showed audiences a whole new facet of his personality.
Recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) has been variously described as a heartwarming celebration of family values, an historical appreciation of vanished small-town life, “sentimental hogwash,” an indictment of centralized banking, and a communist manifesto. It is all of these things. And yet, it is also something more.