For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!
“It’s a Wonderful Life” – the classic Christmas film that was never intended to be a Christmas film- although it begins and ends on Christmas Eve. This film is the tale of the power of a common hardworking man, whose self sacrifice helps others get out from under the control of the curmudgeonly control of a wealthy banker. I think it makes the perfect holiday classic because of the tie-in with the miracle that happens in the film- and thinking deeper, the miracle of our protagonists’ life an his impact on everyone he comes in contact with.
The film opens with a view of the heavens, where star angels discuss the fate of George Bailey (James Stewart). They discuss Bailey’s formative years, allowing for motivated narration when necessary. The narration is so conversational it doesn’t seem forced at all, and fits in seamlessly with the story. This is where we see George save his young brother, Harry (Todd Karns) from drowning- thus loosing hearing in one of his ears- also saving the local pharmacist he works for from accidentally poisoning a patient, and helping his father at the building and loan, which provides loans to at risk or low income clients. We have learned that he is a selfless soul, who will do anything for others at whatever the cost to himself.
George has finally saved up enough for college, working so long for his father, but first he goes to Harry’s high school graduation dance. There he meets up with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), a young woman with a crush on him. We get a glimpse of the exciting and heartfelt romance before George discovers that his father has suffered a stroke. When his father passes, George must decide the fate of the building and loan. He defends his father’s character and also the building and loan, (which he resents) because it is an option for those who need it, other than the bank owned by the Scrooge-like Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
George Bailey is also a more complicated character. George wants to do the right thing, out of a sense of duty or conscience, but often his own personal desires come into conflict with this moral obligation. As this internal conflict builds, it causes him to lash out at the ones closest to him. Every time something comes up, George accepts his choice to stay in Bedford Falls, work at the building and loan, and marry Mary Hatch, but the internal conflict remains. It boils inside him, making him a real, multidimensional character.
When Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George’s partner at the building loan, looses an $8000 deposit at a time when the building and loan is undergoing an audit, George finally reaches his breaking point. Everything around him becomes a reminder of his perceived failures. Desperate to cover the shortage on the books, George crawls to Potter. Potter refuses him, and even plants the little seed in his head that the only thing of real value that George owns is his life insurance policy. There is real darkness in this film, noted in the beginning of the film when the Angels are talking about George being in trouble. George has decided to commit suicide, which is what brings his Guardian Angel Clarence (Henry Travers) into the story.
Clarence pulls a page from ‘A Christmas Carol’ and takes George to a world where he never existed to show him the impact he has on other’s lives. George is horrified. His brother died in the drowning incident – as did the servicemen his brother was not there to save, the pharmacist he worked for is the local bum after the poisoning incident, and without the building and loan, Potter has taken over Bedford Falls (which is now called Potterville), and there are all sorts of unsavory establishments on the main street. He has no wife- no children- and his old friends and his mother do not recognize him. George begs to live again, and finds himself back back in the present where he realizes how grateful he is for everything he has, and no longer cares about everything he gave up. His old dreams faded and his new dreams are his reality.
His friends come to the rescue with more than enough money to make up the misplaced amount. Harry arrives to support his brother, and gives a toast to “The richest man in town.” Among the donated funds George finds a note from Clarence: “George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends. P.S. Thanks for the wings! Love, Clarence.” A bell on the Christmas tree rings, and his daughter Zuzu remembers aloud that it means an angel has earned his wings. George realizes that he truly has a wonderful life.
The film gives us the message that each of us, through our everyday interactions with others have the power to change lives and the community for the better. It is a must see- even a must own.
In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns: