Saturday, December 17, 2016

'It's a Wonderful Life' Still Has Wonder 70 Years Later

'It's a Wonderful Life' opens and closes with a Christmas theme.
It’s a Wonderful Life has been revered—and occasionally reviled—from about every angle. What’s left to say about this 1946 film, about a suicidal man and his guardian angel, which went from half-forgotten to holiday favorite?

The Baileys wonder if they should go back to the bank!
I can only add that It’s a Wonderful Life, along with a few other favorite films, was an important part of my childhood. As an adult, I haven’t watched the movie every year like I did as a kid. When I do watch, I see Hollywood storytelling at its best. And that beneath the story’s sentiment is the slightly melancholy message that each person matters in this world.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that started popping on local TV across the US in the early 1970s, when the rights fell into public domain. Our family first started watching it in on the afternoon movie. Our Upper Michigan TV channel ran old films during the week for 90 whopping minutes, before the local news. Since It’s a Wonderful Life ran 130 minutes, it had to be aired on two days.

George & Mary Bailey of Bedford Falls. This was Donna Reed's first starring role.
During my upbringing, Life was a welcome tradition in our family. Our Manistique family related to small-town Bedford Falls, with its poor, working-class people. We loved the familiar faces of the cast—hey look, there’s Grandma Walton playing a bank customer! We loved to hate Bedford Falls own Scrooge, Mr. Potter. And we really loved the fantasy look at Bedford Falls as Potterville, when George Bailey gets his wish that he’d had never been born. And like The Wizard of Oz, us smarty pants Gould kids never tired of the story, in fact, we enjoyed the repetition and pointing out the movie’s miniscule details.

Drew Barrymore's great-uncle Lionel as Mr. Potter, one of movie's great villains!
As an adult, I fell away from watching It’s a Wonderful Life because it hadn’t yet been hailed as a re-discovered holiday classic, and was still run on afternoon movie shows. I have caught Life a few times in the last couple decades, and while nostalgia certainly figures into my feelings, I still find It’s a Wonderful Life an incredibly moving as well as entertaining movie. The film is the American counterpart of A Christmas Carol.

Director Frank Capra has often been criticized as a filmmaker version of artist Norman Rockwell. While there’s truth to that comparison, both men were meticulous artists and suffered from depression, which made their optimistic work a bit dark around the edges at times. In Capra’s case, both he and star Jimmy Stewart had come back from World War II changed men. They weren’t sure what kind of films they wanted to make. Capra was intrigued by a story about an ordinary man who still had a great impact on the people around him. Stewart was interested, but no longer wanted to play the folksy good old boy roles that made him famous.

Gloria Grahame played Violet, Bedford Falls bad girl with a heart of gold.
It’s a Wonderful Life had its critics upon its Christmas 1946 release and beyond, citing Capra’s sentimental whimsy as naïve in post-war America. Ironically, though Life wasn’t the flop that legend has it—as was said of The Wizard of Oz—yet audiences found the story depressing. Like Oz, Life was a costly film to make, and despite some good reviews and Oscar nominations, was not a great comeback movie for the director and star. And as the case with Oz, television is the medium that made Life a classic, a perennial favorite.

What I enjoy about It’s a Wonderful Life is that the film has the greatest qualities of old-time Hollywood film-making. Yes, it’s sentimental and the plot hinges on chance—every time George Bailey tries to bail out of Bedford Falls, something life-changing happens and he gets pulled back home. But I have no patience for today’s movie watchers who criticize past cinematic conventions by today’s standards, as if to demonstrate their coolness. I find it ridiculous that at least two generations of moviegoers, whose movie diet is mostly big-screen cartoons, can’t tolerate another era’s movies, because they’re not believable. It’s called suspension of disbelief, people.

George Bailey is not feeling so wonderful about his life.
In fact, in It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is not always such a wonderful guy. George is bored with small-town life and longs to travel the world. But Bailey’s sense of obligation keeps him tied to the family banking business due to his father’s death, financial mismanagement, and WWII. Stewart truly should have won an Oscar for his multi-layered portrayal of George Bailey, a decent everyman frustrated by his lot in life. Stewart is not always saintly. Think of the scene where George calls upon Mary, at the insistence of his mother. With interference from her mother and rival Sam Wainwright calling, Bailey rails at poor Mary about not getting tied-down to the same small town and woman. The scene is emotionally heart-felt, despite being one of the least romantic proposals in movie history. Or how about the scene where George’s befuddled Uncle Billy loses the bank’s money? Again, Stewart is no saint, ranting that he won’t take the fall. This is capped by the disturbing domestic scene—especially for a ‘40s movie—where Jimmy’s George Bailey takes his frustrations out on his entire family, before bailing to the nearest bar.

Thomas Mitchell, Scarlett O' Hara's dad, plays Uncle Billy.
Life is a great example of old-style filmmaking where all the threads of the story come together and create a beautiful piece of storytelling. All the strands of George Bailey’s life and the people who know him come together memorably. Which is the point of It’s a Wonderful Life: each person’s life has an effect on another.

H.B. Warner & Robert J. Anderson as the bereaved druggist and young George. 
What I’ve always loved about this Frank Capra classic is that the brilliant casting. Capra was famous for starring American icons like Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper in his films and surrounding them with great character actors. It’s a Wonderful Life has one of the best ensembles in film history. Aside from Stewart in his signature role, Life gave Donna Reed her first starring role. Reed’s ideal as the girl next door, warm and real. Lionel Barrymore is one of movie’s great villains as Bedford Falls’ rich and rotten Mr. Potter. Thomas Mitchell, famous as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone with the Wind, plays his other most famous role as alcoholic, forgetful Uncle Billy. Beulah Bondi, often cast in maternal roles, has her most famous mother as Mrs. Bailey. Her warm presence makes the later scene where she harshly doesn’t recognize son George most startling. Gloria Grahame got her first break as small town vixen Violet. H.B. Warner, famous in the silents as Jesus in King of Kings, does a heartbreaking turn as Mr. Gower, the drunk druggist. The intense scene where young George Bailey makes Gower realize he’s accidentally poisoned a prescription always makes me tear up. Robert J. Anderson is naturally appealing as young George—unlike many child stars of the era. Ward Bond and Frank Faylen were so likeable as Bedford Falls’ Bert and Ernie that Sesame Street named two of their puppets in their honor!

Henry Travers' turn as Clarence didn't even get an Oscar nomination!
Of course, the scene stealer of It’s a Wonderful Life is Henry Travers as Clarence, the angel in need of wings. Travers was a popular working actor, but Life was the cherry on top of long career—he retired from acting just three years later.

To George Bailey, the richest man in Bedford Falls!
Given the acting style of classic Hollywood, the film’s entire cast, from the stars down to the bit roles, is remarkably natural. This great acting ensemble, along with Frank Capra’s superb storytelling, is why It’s a Wonderful Life has stayed in the hearts and minds of audiences for 70 years.