It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

13 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is undoubtedly one of the most well-known, popular Christmas films, but it really is something more than that. To call this film a treasure would be to understate it. It’s not only a celebration of storytelling and filmmaking, but also a celebration of life. It’s about acknowledging what you have, knowing that things can be good, and how you couldn’t imagine your life going another way. That its important final half occurs during Christmastime just raises its emotional level.

I love this wonderful movie, and I still find it hard to believe that it was obscure when it first released in 1946. Even though it was nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), it received mixed reviews and barely made back what it cost, despite the box-office popularity of filmmaker Frank Capra. But as time went by and it hit public domain, it did find its audience as movie-lovers fell in love with what this beautiful film had to offer.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a masterpiece in storytelling. The structure of the film is just brilliant. It begins with shots of a quiet, snowy small town called Bedford Falls on the night of Christmas Eve, with voiceovers from people praying to help George Bailey. The prayers reach Heaven, as God assigns a “2nd-class” angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) to be George’s guardian angel. But first he has to show him (and the audience) who George is and what led him to contemplate suicide…

George grew up in Bedford Falls, but had big dreams of seeing the world and becoming a world-famous explorer. But as he grew to adulthood, he had to give up those dreams, as well as college, to take over the Bailey Building and Loan Society after his father passed away. George continues through his life in Bedford Falls, always putting human need above anything else such as wealth, always supported by his family and friends. His main problem: a ruthless banker named Potter (Lionel Barrymore) works the opposite way, using his riches to drain the spirit of Bedford Falls. Potter wants to hit the Bailey Building and Loan because it’s the one place in town he doesn’t own, and he knows if he can buy George out, he’ll run the whole town. As Potter constantly thinks of a new way to get his hands on the institution, George thankfully finds a way to foil him.

This is essentially the first two-thirds of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: giving us insight into George’s life, showing events from his childhood to his adulthood. We know what he was expecting his life to be, and are as heartbroken as he is when things don’t work out the way he planned. While there are many comic, upbeat moments (such as the infamous swimming-pool scene where George dances with his first love, Mary), there are also some grim moments in between, particularly those that lead to George standing on a bridge, about to jump off and end his own misery.

After all this buildup, we finally get to Clarence being sent to Earth to help George however he can. This is what this film’s admirers remember most from this movie: the final third of the film. Clarence jumps into the river under the bridge so that George can save him. When George does save him and Clarence introduces himself as his guardian angel, George doesn’t believe him and only sees him as an oddball. But Clarence has a way of proving himself and also showing George how wonderful his life truly is: by making it so that George can see what Bedford Falls would have been like if he was never born. It’s in this alternate reality that George makes some shocking discoveries about how things would have turned out without him around—everyone is much worse off. Potter owns the town; George’s uncle, Billy, is committed; George’s brother, Harry, is dead; his wife, Mary (well-played by Donna Reed), is single and lonely; his children are gone; and so on.

And so George learns that each contribution he could give is helpful to others, that things in life can work out though not always in ways expected, and that the greatest values in life are family and friends. It’s no wonder that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of the very best “feel-good” movies (in fact, you could make the argument that it’s the absolute best)—its story is told in such a way that when the payoff ultimately occurs, it really means something and strikes emotional chords with audiences.

Everything about “It’s a Wonderful Life” works. The story, the characters, the filmmaking, the message, and the acting all make this film all-around, for lack of a better word, “wonderful.” I watch it numerous times every Christmas, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t watch it about 8-10 times this season.

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