Friday, January 1, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Few movies are as recognizable and loved as It's a Wonderful Life by the average American movie watcher.  It's place in the cannon of American cinema is secured and the film certainly earns it in many respects. Saccharin sweet and full of charm and humor, the movie has endured as a family Christmas classic for generations. The thing I hate most about It's a Wonderful Life is that it's so effective. No matter how much you tell yourself that you won't let the movie get to you, it still does. It's a Wonderful Life is a perfect storm of charm, humor and just enough drama to balance the moments of unbearable sweet Christmas cheer.

The film, directed by Frank Capra and staring James Stewart, is the story of George Bailey. Bailey has had a good life, but has had to compromise his own dreams at nearly every turn. He is loved by everyone he knows, has a wonderful family and a rewarding job. One Christmas, things start go bad. After some money is misplaced at the loan office he works for, Bailey has a breakdown and he decides to kill himself. An angel is sent to help him, Capra was a devout Catholic after all, and things get better from there.

Bailey's life has a truly rewarding, and fascinating, arc to it. It seems that his plans are foiled at every turn. His dreams of finally leaving his small town are dashed at every opportunity. It seems that every time he might get what he wants, things go wrong. What's interesting though is that things never go bad for George Bailey. He never gets to leave home, but he becomes a local hero. He marries a beautiful women, has a wonderful family and is one of the best human beings ever put on screen. It's so refreshing to see a character as genuine and nice as George Bailey. Combining that with how intensely likable and charming James Stewart is, and you have one of the most memorable characters ever put on screen.

Things falter a little bit when it comes to the films message though. While it's important that a person should be happy with what they have, part of me rebels against how much George compromises of himself. I'm glad he is happy in the end, but I don't feel like anything would ever totally remedy the loss of his original hopes and dreams. This message makes sense when you consider the film as disgustingly sweet propaganda piece for Catholicism though. Coupled with the silly talking stars at the beginning, the movie doesn't put it's best foot forward. Luckily things get better as we dive into George's life and the drama that comes with it. Capra's intentions with It's a Wonderful Life were simple. Combat the spread of atheism. The movie didn't succeed in that way, but, luckily, it was highly effective in a traditional sense.

It's a Wonderful Life transcends it's own cheesiness by plunging into some surprisingly dark places. The mix between sentimentality, humor and drama only works because of Capra's fantastic direction and Stewart's classic performance. Without Stewart's charm, I don't feel like the film could have succeeded. Few actors have ever been as likable as Stewart and you find yourself rooting for him no matter the character he portrays.  The film requires a trip down the darker roads of human existence to sustain it's sweeter side. The balance here is almost perfect and the film is a classic because of it.

Calling a film a "classic" is a dangerous thing. How do decide which movies are truly "classics" and which movies are just good? There really isn't any debate about It's a Wonderful Life though. It defines the word "classic" in a way that very few movies have ever done. It's enduring charm has made it one of the few must see movies for everyone. Even the most cynical of movie watchers will find it hard not to get choked up at the end. You won't find me screening the movie every Christmas, but I can't deny it's effectiveness and appeal.


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