It is extremely hard to objectively criticize a work that is not really just a "movie," or even a film (if there is a qualitative difference), but is an emotional and cultural experience that has colored my childhood and continues to arise to comment on the events in my life and how I am living it. I am sure that Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life performs this function for more than just myself, but also for generations of Americans (with the possible exclusion of the generation which actually saw it in theaters). It is not strange at all that a Sicilian immigrant named Frank Capra created such a brilliant, totally American tale that echoes so deeply in our national consciousness. What is strange is that it did not resonate for the generation for whom it was created. In fact, the film at first flopped, and only later became known as perhaps the definitive Christmas movie.
As a film, It's a Wonderful Life is ingenious. The idea of showing a man and his impact on the world, and then creating an entire world that is the same except for his absence, is powerful. Especially with George Bailey, the kind of person who had great dreams, but sacrificed them when it became clear that he was needed elsewhere.
So many moments from George's life just break your heart. Saving his brother on the ice, taking the consequences of helping Mr. Gower from Mr. Gower himself, leaving George slightly deaf, the courtship of Mary by the house they would later buy--these are such simple things in themselves, but they add up to a great man. As played by Jimmy Stewart and delicately handled by director Capra, however, we never get the feeling that we are reading the true drama section of "Boys' Life" or attending a testimonial dinner, but we are truly experiencing the moments when a regular person has to decide what to do, and chooses to do the right thing.
It's a Wonderful Life is also perhaps one of the darkest feel-good movies of all time. Even before the world loses George Bailey, the scenes in which George realizes that Uncle Billy has lost the deposits, when the bank examiner shows up, when the run occurs, and the temptation by Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) are all really scary, and I remember being scared just by the bleak, shadowy look of it all when I saw this movie as a child. The rushing waters below the bridge when George is contemplating suicide are like a void, and the tension mounts as we hope against hope that something will intervene.
The Pottersville sequence is very dark as well. The breakdown of the entire town of Bedford Falls is illustrated terrifyingly, not because any part of it is so terrible, but because we saw what it really was when people cared about each other. "Don't you know me?" is George's constant question throughout this part of the movie, and it becomes a question the audience asks itself. "Do I know myself? Who do I know? Does anyone really know me? Does anyone really know me who I want to know me?" These are powerful questions. George's frustration ends with his moving, tearful prayer to his Father in Heaven on a bench outside Martini's after he has been beaten down much more powerfully by the lack of his life than he ever had been by life itself. Because George really had been known, and he had been loved, liked, and supported. The loss of all of that was just too much.
All of the acting here is superb. This is a movie in which even iconic actors like Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Ward Bond transcend themselves so that we believe every second. And Henry Travers as Clarence is brilliantly wry, somber, apologetic, and firm all at once. When he gets his wings, when the bell rings on the Christmas tree in the Bailey house, with all of George's friends and family gathered around, the single most unbelievable, corny, absurd part of the entire movie, we have been so high with George and so low with George that we can only smile and agree that he deserves them.
Many movies, and every sitcom, have attempted to put a spin on the It's a Wonderful Life concept of the impact of an individual human life. It's like the Scrooge story of A Christmas Carol, in the inverse, except that there is no definitive version of Scrooge. Capra did It's a Wonderful Life once, and no one need ever do it again.
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