02 December 2005

100 films: It's a Wonderful Life

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starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Thomas Mitchell
written by: Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, from the story by Philip Van Doren Stern
directed by: Frank Capra
NR, 130 min, 1946, USA

Oddly enough, It's a Wonderful Life was a box office flop upon it's release in 1946, but managed to become the beloved Christmas tradition it is today largely by accident. Even though the film had earned five Oscar nominations, it's copyright was allowed to expire in the 70's, entering it into the Public Domain, where any television station can air it free of charge. So TV execs, being the frugal types they are, took to airing the film repeatedly during the Christmas season; so often, if fact, that the film came to be considered a vital part of the holliday.

The result is that we've all seen Frank Capra's tale of George Bailey (James Stewart), a man who's never turned his back on a friend in need, and how his death wish is subverted when Angel Second Class Clarence (Henry Travers) shows him what Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born[1]. George sees the error of his ways, Clarence gets his wings, and the town pulls together to help out in the end. If that just spoiled the ending for you, then you've been out of the loop for much too long.

George Bailey is, among other things, a terrible pessimist. He claims to hate Bedford Falls and has no other ambitions than to leave, but fate seems to constantly be finding ways for him to stay, at least that's what he tells people. But is it really? Or is George subconsciously looking for reasons to stay in Bedford Falls because everything he knows and loves is encased in that little town? Certainly a man with that much desire to see the world wouldn't find an excuse to stay every time something went wrong. He could have, for example, told Ernie to keep driving on his wedding night instead of preventing a run on the bank. He could have taken Potter's offer to work for him with all the perks of business trips and the like. But he doesn't. He stays in Bedford Falls, working and paying and living with the rabble of the town, constantly forgoing his own needs to help those around him. Had he left and perhaps become rich investing in plastics, would he have ultimately been any happier? Perhaps, but then who would have come to his aid in his darkest hour? Probably not Clarence, and certainly not the townsfolk who come without questions to give George cash when he needs it most.

In a way it's become a part of all of our Christmas, even if we don't watch it. The simple fact that it will be on in the days prior has a comforting quality about it, but I wonder just how many of us have actually sat down and watched the entire film not as a tradition, in the way we might watch Frosty the Snowman, but as an actual classic piece of cinema, minus the commercials and the hype and the baggage it may carry. Because outside of those constraints, It's a Wonderful Life can take on whole new aspects you'd never think it had. It's easy to view it with a shade of cynicism when every five minutes you have to sit through a Hallmark commercial and other such nonsense, but by itself it is a moving and profound cinematic experience where prayer coupled with karma can lead to the happy ending where God smiles on George Bailey. For a moment, you catch a hint of the divine. Even an angel without his wings will tell you that's a rarity.

[1] It turns out to be a rural Las Vegas, minus the casinos.