To clarify, this post was later in the “Personal Favorites” schedule, but given that Christmas is soon, I thought it would be smart to skip ahead to the #2 movie on the list: It’s a Wonderful Life, the greatest Christmas movie of all time. Watching It’s a Wonderful Life has become an annual holiday tradition for many American families, mine included, as it calls people to be thankful for everything they have.
The movie tells the story of a guardian angel who is sent down to earth to help generous family man George Bailey as he considers suicide after his business accidentally finds itself in severe dire straits on Christmas Eve. The lengthy first act chronicles George’s life from youth to fatherhood, showing how his life has affected many others. The angel, Clarence, in a desperate attempt to show George how precious a person’s life is, transports him to a world where he was never born.
Obviously, I’m going to be discussing everything that happens in the film, so if you want to avoid spoilers, don’t read any further. But this movie came out 70 years ago, and is broadcast on American television around the same time every year, so if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t know what to tell you.
A Man’s Life
It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of a man from youth to adulthood as he helps others and compromises on his dreams. Just as with Forest Gump or Big Fish after it, Wonderful Life provides a sweeping epic made up of smaller stories, leading up to a fitting conclusion. All these brief stories invest us in the character for the emotional conclusion.
All the little encounters and details – from young George showing young Mary his copy of National Geographic or shopping for a new suitcase or his architecture models in his house as an adult – show his ambitious side. And all the other little encounters and details – like George giving Mr. Martini and his family a home, or lending money to his friend Violet as she tries to leave Bedford Falls, or George’s face as he considers remaining at the Building and Loan so that his brother Harry can work at a better-paying job. It isn’t just the big moments that make up a person’s life, it’s the small ones.
And more like Forest Gump, the movie chronicles a period of American history. While Gump takes us from Elvis to Dot-Com era in the 90’s, It’s a Wonderful Life shows us the Roaring 20’s, the Great Depression, and World War II. Obviously, it’s not a full-fledged history lesson, but a neat time capsule. The history moments aren’t just for aesthetic, but help indicate what life would have been like, what the characters would have lived through.
Yes, all right, the Roaring 20’s mostly provides an aesthetic, with things like the Charleston Dance and the bit where Mr. Bailey tells Harry not to drink any gin, but it does provide a bit of an emotional grounding. The 20’s in America are remembered (and mythologized) for wild, Gatsby-esque parties and drinking gin despite Prohibition. There’s certainly an idealized vision of the era, in which things were only good and people fell in perfect love (a la Gatsby and Daisy*). And that’s what the 1920’s scene feels like; George and Mary make eye contact, and it is an absolutely magical moment. They fall in love, they dance, they’re elated. But the power of happiness in the 20’s comes from the tragedy of the 1930’s. The 1920’s provided a Great Happiness before the Great Depression.
And the Great Depression comes up in one particular scene in which there’s a run on the bank, because the townsfolk worry it will become insolvent – which in layman’s terms means that everyone rushes to the bank because they worry it doesn’t have any money to pay back the people who are keeping their money there. And the Great Depression just gives George another chance to prove just how generous he is as he and Mary give up their savings in order to sustain the bank.
The World War II scene is the most telling. Many of the minor characters achieve some kind of glory in the war. Able-bodied Harry gets to go abroad and prove himself, receiving a Medal of Honor, while, once again, George has to stay home and do the mundane yet necessary things.
Does the bad guy technically win?
Ugh, I love how much I hate Mr. Potter. He’s probably my favorite movie villain whose name ends with neither “Vader” or “Lecter.” In A Christmas Carol, the same character comes in the form of Ebeneezer Scrooge, and in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he’s the Grinch. The main difference is, Scrooge and the Grinch find redemption; Potter remains his greedy, mean-spirited self, and ends up $8000 richer by the end of the film.
There’s a well-directed moment towards the middle of the film in which Mr. Potter asks George to sell the building and loan and come work for him for $20000 a year – which would be a truly remarkable salary in the 1930’s, compared to his small but livable $45 – complete with exciting trips to New York and Europe. This is everything George has ever wanted. It’s a big moment.
When George sits down, he sinks into his seat, and since Mr. Potter is sitting higher up, it looks as though he is more powerful. Mr. Potter offers him a cigar, as a means of making the meeting more agreeable. As long as George smokes the cigar, he’s in some way invested. And Potter hits all the right notes – emphasizing everything that George wants to hear. In a kind tone, he tells George to think about the offer for a day before making a decision. As George departs, Mr. Potter reaches for a handshake. George shakes hands with him, then feels uneasy about the whole thing. It’s a Deal-with-the-Devil moment, in which George realizes that accepting a job from Mr. Potter violates everything he stands for.
That’s what makes Mr. Potter so evil. He owns nearly everything, and everything he does not own, he tries to obtain. Why? Simply to have it, and that others cannot have it. Probably the scariest notion about Mr. Potter is that Clarence and George’s trip into the other life ends them up in a dystopian parallel to Bedford Falls – Pottersville, a town created in his image, just because the Bailey Building and Loan was not there to stop him. This makes George and the Bailey Building and Loan more than just a simple business; it makes them the Rebel Alliance to Potter’s Empire. And the worst part is, as far as we know, he ends up with all the money that Uncle Billy misplaced. That hardly seems fair.
I think back to George Lucas changing the original Star Wars films. People act like those three movies, when they debuted in 1977, ’80, and ’83 were the greatest things that ever were or ever will be. That any changes, like Greedo shooting first, the song at Jabba’s palace, or retroactively putting in Hayden Christensen as Darth Vader’s ghost, were nothing short of an affront to the original works. They conveniently ignore all the good changes that actually did improve the work, because those are also branded as sacrilegious. Or, for an opposite example, think to Blade Runner. The original, theatrical release was so botched that it has since undergone two re-releases, as “The Director’s Cut” and “The Final Cut,” both of which are much more appreciated.
However, what not enough people seem to know is that there is a beautifully colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life. Given that It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the better-known films from the black-and-white era, watching it in color makes for an entirely different experience. To illustrate my point:
Does the color version look like real life? Well no. It makes it look like a painting, not a photo. Does it make the film look better? Arguably, yes; arguably, no. The one thing that can be said is that it makes the film feel more lively.
If I had any proficiency in editing, I would make a cut the film in which the movie is in color until George wishes he had never been born – then have it fade into black and white. Keep the black and white until George returns to his normal life, with color being restored for the happy ending. Basically, a reverse The Wizard of Oz.
The Moral of the Story
George returns home to find his family and everyone he’s ever done anything for has come to help him in his time of need. Every minor character from earlier on has returned to help George. All the while, George is just glad to see his wife and kids. The scene ends with a ringing bell as Clarence gets his wings. It’s beautiful.
Basically, the belief at the center of this film is that all the good things we do for other people will come back to us when we need them most. That life is a miracle, and that we should all cherish what we have. It’s the most elated scene in any movie.
In the procession of people, there’re two important details that can get overlooked. First, the Bank Examiner, who came to report the $8000 deficit, chips in a dollar. Earlier in the film, he comes off as an almost cold, uncaring character, so the idea that he contributes a dollar makes for a surprising show of compassion. Directly after him, the detective who had initially shown up to arrest George rips up the warrant for George’s arrest and throws it in the pile.
Other Great Moments
It’s rare that something as subtle and nuanced such as blocking can be noticed by a typical moviegoer (or for me that matter), but in the scene which precedes George and Mary’s wedding, when George realizes he loves Mary, the blocking puts it all together. The beginning of the scene establishes that Mary’s mother is nosy and listens in on her phone call – leading to the funny moment of Mary saying quietly “Mother’s on the extension and her mother slamming down the extension and shouting “I am not!”
This means that George and Mary have to share one receiver. In order to hear what Sam is saying on the other end, they need to stand close together. They’re in each other’s bubbles of personal space. It makes for an intimate situation
A tiny detail that I love is that when Clarence first arrives in the story, it’s the exact moment when George is about to jump into the river. George is considering killing himself – in that moment, that’s his first priority. So Clarence falls into the river as a means of making sure that George does not go through with it. Why does this work? Because as soon as someone in danger, George’s priority shifts from what he was about to do to helping someone in need.
Okay, so all the superlatives are fairly obvious, but whatever, I’ll go through them anyway.
Favorite Performance: This one was actually pretty tough. Lionel Barrymore gives a great curmudgeonly performance. And Donna Reed plays the role of loving and concerned wife wonderfully. And I have to give a nod to
Favorite Scene: As if this would go to anything else. The end of the movie, from when George realizes he’s alive again to the very last moment. Full disclosure: I tear up every time.
Favorite Quote: “No man is a failure who has friends.”
Academy Awards/Nominations: Six; Winning a technical achievement award, but also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing.
Fun Fact: A couple of towns over from where I live is the town of Pottersville, NJ, which boasts this amusing little sign:
If you like this, also check out: The music video for “Boots,” by the Killers. Original Christmas songs are rare, so The Killers’ persistence in putting out new Christmas songs is refreshing. “Boots” begins with a clip from It’s a Wonderful Life, and the music video manages to channel the same emotional energy as the film.
Some people have A Christmas Story, some people have Elf, some people have Scrooged. I have this movie. It’s a Wonderful Life is, well, a wonderful film. For many people, it’s an important annual tradition which helps us remember what makes the holidays so special. Being with friends and family, being thankful for everything we have, and being there for others.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, friends! ❤