"Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives."
It’s a wonderful life (1946) is a (then) modern update and (sort of) retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, it’s one of director Frank Capra’s classic films and probably my favorite Christmas film of all time.
It’s a Wonderful life tells the story of George Bailey's entire life. George is a genuinely good person who does good for other people but always ends up having the worst luck with the way things turn out. Eventually we see just how much a good man can take before it changes him.
With a story like this where you show a person’s entire life it’d be easy to trip up on the aging process. I really like how simple but yet effective this film is at aging the actors. Using only minimal makeup effects, a little bit of graying of the hair but a lot of it is done through clothing and hairstyle and mainly just the way the actors changed the way they acted and held themselves. Genius. No need for pounds of makeup or prosthetic or CG, (like they would have done today!)
Speaking of which, the entire cast is really wonderful. James Stewart hadn't acted in 5 years and felt he was "out of the game" but this being his third Capra film, Frank Capra knew exactly how to use Stewart not only as the wonderful, nice, good-hearted George, but also knew that he was capable of playing the darker side a man who is just completely frustrated with his years of horrible luck. And the seemingly perfect counter balance for James Stewart was the pretty much unknown Donna Reed as George's love interest. She is such a charming role and full of the wholesome sex appeal you don't see on the screen too much these days. Also the film brings together a lot of the greatest character actors of the day, which adds a lot to the humor and charm of the film. Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as the original Bert and Ernie, Henry Travers as the oddball angel Clarence, Thomas Mitchell as the eccentric Uncle Billy and Lionel Barrymore as the heartless Mr. Potter all have very memorable performances. And the humor keeps the film alive and watchable as things get progressively worse and worse for George.
There’s some effects and composting of stock footage that don’t hold up as well as they probably did 60+ years ago, but considering how long ago that was, this film really holds up pretty well. For example there's these “space” scenes that look like well balls on string but yet as soon as they pass, they use a simple effect of painted galaxies that flash while talking, and honestly I thought this was a really clever and effective way to do it, and I think it still holds up for the most part and the creative things they did for special effects actually add to the charm of the film in my opinion.
I really love the story of It’s a Wonderful Life, I would think it’d be really difficult to tell a man’s entire life in just a few key clips and highlights, and yet this film does it so well, it makes it look easy. By only focusing on a couple of really important times in his life and then packing everything you need to know (including details about supporting characters and how they’ve changed) into those scenes. This allows the film to track multiple characters, and tell their lives without it growing old or too repetitive.
As I mentioned before this is kind of an adaptation of A Christmas Carol but what I really like is this film is how real it all seems. The characters don’t seem like stereotypes we see all the time in film today. George Bailey really seems like a genuinely nice person, but you can tell it peeves him when the worst luck keeps happening to him, or his plans fizzle and eventually his frustrations gather beyond his control putting him on the brink of doing something very stupid. And the film doesn’t pull any punches either, the drama and struggle these characters go through is very real and very difficult.
This film does a really great job at dealing with a lot of hard subject matter like bankruptcy, a death in the family, suicide and greed also high concept stuff like why bad things happen to good people, and even God and some very Christian themes and incorporates them all into the film in a way that doesn’t seem pushy (or eye roll worthy) and effectively breaks all of them down into easy enough bites to understand in the context of the film. This definitely isn’t a film for kids, but it doesn’t take a religious nut or an economics major to enjoy it either.
Now one thing that critics like to say about Frank Capra’s work is that he has a reputation for really corny stories and particularly endings, they came up with clever terms like “Capra-corn” and this film definitely follows suite. But I would argue that this film’s ending is perfectly deserved. Here we see a guy who just always gets the worst side of luck no matter how hard he tries life keeps dealing him worse and worse luck, so much that he’s literally at his wits end. And when the film gets to the ending and everyone helps George out it’s a really, really wonderful moment and very well deserved. It's not just a happy ending for happy ending's sake. This is the perfect ending for this story.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a very real feeling look at the harder sides of life and a moral tale about goodness and a Christmas miracle. It was director Frank Capra's favorite of his films and it's one of mine too. 5/5 Stars.
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