It's a Wonderful Life
(United States, 1946)
Considering my reputation as a pessimist, some may find it surprising that the ultimate non-cynical, feel good movie has found its way into my Top 10. I am, of course, referring to Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, which may easily be the most uplifting motion picture of all time. And those who can get past the Capra-corn will discover a movie that is perfect in nearly every aspect, from story to acting to composition. The film is widely regarded as a "Christmas classic" for three reasons: the plot is highly derivative of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the themes fit in well with the spirit of the season, and the film's conclusion occurs in front of a Christmas tree. Nevertheless, it's a little unfair that It's a Wonderful Life hibernates for 11 months a year, since it's a fine film to see at any time. Tired of too many April showers? Brought low during the dog days of August? Depressed by the World Series loss of your favorite team? It's a Wonderful Life offers the cure for many ills. The first time I watched the movie was during the late summer, and the absence of cold temperatures and sleigh bells outside did little to dampen my enjoyment. These days, I usually view It's a Wonderful Life about once a year, sometimes around Christmas, sometimes not. For me, it's required periodic viewing, if only to remind me that there are reasons to be optimistic about this life and my fellow passengers on the journey through it.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
As almost every avid movie-lover knows, It's a Wonderful Life tales the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), the unsung, beloved hero of Bedford Falls. As a child, George was selfless, risking his own life (and losing his hearing in one ear) to save his brother from drowning. As an adult, he gave up his dreams of traveling the world and going to college to stay home and manage the Bailey Building and Loan Society after his father passed away. Throughout his life, George lives by a creed that always placed human need above riches, and, as a result, his only wealth was in his friends and family. The film's villain is a miserly old man named Potter (played with consummate nastiness by movie great Lionel Barrymore), who uses his considerable wealth to bleed the citizens of Bedford Falls dry. The first two-thirds of It's a Wonderful Life recaps George's life during the span of years from 1919, when he's a child dreaming of becoming an explorer, until 1946, when he is firmly established as the rock of Bedford Falls. The film has romance (George's courting of Mary, who is played by Donna Reed), comedy (an unexpected swim at a high school dance), and tragedy (the death of Peter Bailey). And, although the predominant tone is upbeat, Capra effectively captures the darkness of George's mood as his mounting personal and financial troubles plunge him into an abyss of despair. Those who mistakenly think of It's a Wonderful Life as all light and sunshine forget the grimness of certain later scenes, especially those that culminate in George standing on a bridge, contemplating suicide. Enter Clarence (Henry Travers), George's lovable, bumbling guardian angel, who has come to Bedford Falls to prove to George that his life is worth living. To defend his position, he grants George one wish: to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.
What is it about this film, an uplifting, sentimental fable about the importance of the individual, that strikes a responsive chord with so many viewers? It's a Wonderful Life has earned its legion of followers because it effectively touches upon one basic truth of life that we all would like to believe - that each of us, no matter how apparently insignificant, has the power to make a difference, and that the measure of our humanity has nothing to do with fame or money, but with how we live our life on a day-to-day basis. It's a Wonderful Life asks and answers a question that all of us think of at one time or another: "What would this world be like if I had never been born?" There's no doubt that It's a Wonderful Life is a "feel good" movie. Yet the film's manipulation is intensely skillful and sincere in a way that is rarely apparent in any recently-released, "uplifting" title. Despite being brought to life during the '40s, It's a Wonderful Life offers a timeless story with a universal message.
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