Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Stubs - It's A Wonderful Life

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Gaylen, and Gloria Grahame. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra. Produced by Frank Capra. Run Time: 130 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Drama, Christmas.

In many ways, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is an odd choice as a holiday classic. At its kernel, the story revolves around a desperate man who is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. Further, the film when initially released was far from a big success.

In many ways, it is the fact that the film lapsed into public domain that it has become a classic. For a few years there, before the copyright got straightened out, the film was shown on every channel possible. If it was Christmas, seven or eight channels were showing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But while that made the film accessible, the story has to be compelling to garner repeat business and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is worthy of repeated viewings.

George Bailey (James Stewart) is an unhappy man. Time and time again, he has had to put his dreams aside for the sake of his family, the sake of the customers and employees of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan (think Savings and Loan). He is a man that always dreamt big but always had to be pragmatic. He didn’t want to, but he got married, bought a house, had kids and in short settled down. And what has giving up on his dreams gotten him? Suddenly on Christmas Eve, he is wanted by the bank examiner and a warrant has been issued for his arrest. He faces scandal, bankruptcy and jail. All seems lost.

With the prayers of the people of Bedford Falls for one George Bailey, prompt the heavens to take action. In a long bit of exposition, for the benefit of the angel being sent to help him, we’re told George’s story. As a young boy, George (Bobby Anderson), saves Harry, his younger brother, after he falls through the ice on a frozen pond. Saving his brothers’ life causes George some problems with his ear. This problem is exasperated by druggist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) who smacks his soda jerk/delivery boy when he thinks he has been late with an important delivery. But the boy, knowing Gower’s mental state after hearing about the death of his son in the war, believes he has put poison in the prescription. Because of this abuse, George is now deaf in his left ear.

But even then, we meet Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Bedford Falls is his town. What he doesn’t own outright, he otherwise controls. When young George tries to seek out his father Peter’s (Samuel S. Hinds) advice, he is in a meeting with Potter who is trying to shut down the building and loan. This game of David and Goliath goes on throughout the movie. Potter is against the rinky-dink Building and Loan, even though he is on the board of directors, and is sort of a villain to the entire Bailey clan.

Next, we see George (James Stewart) as an adult man getting ready to go to college after having worked four years at the Building and Loan to save up enough money. One fateful night, George goes to Harry’s (Todd Karns) high school party. There George gets reacquainted with Mary (Donna Reed) a girl he has known, but largely ignored, all his life. It is obvious that the two of them have fallen in love. Just when George is about to make his move, Harry and Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) drive up and tell him that his father has had a stroke.

After George works to restore the company after his father dies, Potter motions the board to shut it down. They only vote against him, if George will agree to stay and run it. So instead of going to college, George stays behind to run the Building and Loan while Harry takes George’s money and goes. The idea is that when he comes back, Harry will take over at the Building and Loan and George will go. However, Harry throws a wrench in the plans by getting married to Ruth (Virginia Patton), whose father wants to set Harry up in research. It is an offer too good to pass up and George knows it.

The night of the reception for Harry and Ruth, George goes to Mary’s house. Despite his dreams, his love for her is too strong. George now reinvents his dreams. Rather than working his way across the ocean on a cattle ship, Mary and he will see the world on their honeymoon. And they are on their way to the train when there is a run on the town’s bank and on the Building and Loan. With no other money available, George uses up his honeymoon money to placate the depositors and to keep the Building and Loan away from Potter.

Mary and George move into one of the most run-down houses in Bedford Falls, which Mary fixes up while giving birth to four children, Pete, Janie, Zuzu, and Tommy. The Building and Loan meanwhile provides many of the residents of Bedford Falls hope as it provides them with money to build their homes, even going so far as to develop Bailey Park where most of these houses are. During World War II, while Harry goes off to war, George stays behind and leads various causes to help the effort. Harry meanwhile turns out to be a hero pilot and upon the conclusion of the war is decorated by the President of the U.S. It is on the eve of his return to Bedford Falls, which also happens to be Christmas Eve, that big brother George’s world falls apart.

Uncle Billy, who is a forgetful drunkard, accidentally slips Potter the Building and Loans’ bank deposit. Making them short on their account and on the same day the bank examiner (Charles Halton) is in town to review the Building and Loan’s books. Desperate, George even turns to his adversary Potter in a last ditch effort to save everything. It is Potter who tells George he is worth more dead than alive. George can’t bring himself to tell his wife, so he goes to Martini’s bar to drink. After getting drunk, George goes to commit suicide off a bridge.

Enter Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), angel second class. He is the heavens’ answer to the prayers for George. When George tries to jump, Clarence beats him to it and George is forced to stop his own suicide attempt to save him. But George is still not convinced so Clarence decides to show him what it would be like if he never lived.

Not only is Bedford Falls now called Potterville, but the quaint downtown has been taken over by bars and nightclubs. When George runs home to his mother, she doesn’t know him. She is a widower, who runs a boarding house and her one son, Harry, was killed as a young boy when he fell through the ice. Clarence tells George that not only did Harry die young, but all the troops on the ship he saved during the war also perished. George’s friends didn’t make out much better. Druggist Gower ends up a rummy, and poor Mary, who never found her soul mate, ends up an old maid. George gets to see all the little ways he has touched people’s lives and touched the lives they touched that he now wants to live.

Even knowing that he might be going to jail, George returns home. The Sheriff and the bank examiner are both waiting for him. But in bursts Mary, followed by most of the town and they all throw in money to help George. Even Mary’s former boyfriend wires that his company will advance whatever money he needs. Harry flies home and drinks a toast to his brother, “the richest man in town.” In a tearful final scene, for the audience, everyone gathered in George’s house sings Auld Lang Syne and the movie ends on a happy, upbeat note.

While the premise is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the plot for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, has been done numerous times on numerous television shows and has been reused in many movies, including THE FAMILY MAN (2000). But none of these stacks up or really compare with IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But what makes LIFE a classic is that it is a good movie, with an intriguing story, a great cast and one of the great directors of all time at the helm.

Frank Capra deserves most of the credit, as director, producer, and co-writer. This is obviously his vision. Capra, a veteran filmmaker, who started, like many in Hollywood, at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios. By the time LIFE came out, Capra had already directed such classic films as PLATINUM BLONDE (1931); IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934); MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936); YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938); MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and MEET JOHN DOE (1940). During World War II, he worked on a series of propaganda documentaries for the War Department and also managed to direct ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE marks Capra’s first post-war effort. After this film, his output would fall off, as he made only a handful of films between 1948 and 1961, including A HOLE IN THE HEAD (1959) and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961).

James Stewart, who has been previously written about on this blog, appeared in numerous films and worked with directors such as Capra, Hitchcock, and Ford and moved effortlessly from comedy to drama to westerns, seemingly starring in a classic or two in every genre.

Playing Mary is Donna Reed, who is just enough sexy and homespun for the role. Unlike her co-stars, she is perhaps better remembered for her work on the little screen. While she co-starred in such films as THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1943) and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), Donna made her biggest impact on television with her self-named sit-com which ran from 1958 to 1966.

Like Capra, Lionel Barrymore’s career started in silent films. Barrymore began working with D.W. Griffith and appeared in such shorts as THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912) considered by many to be the first gangster film and THE NEW YORK HAT (1912). By the time he was 60 in 1938, Barrymore was wheelchair bound. But that didn’t stop him. Barrymore appeared in films until 1952. In addition to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Barrymore appeared in such films as GRAND HOTEL (1932), DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937) and KEY LARGO (1948). In addition, he played Dr. Leonard B. Gillespie in a series of films and also appeared on radio in the same part on THE STORY OF DR. KILDARE series.

Thomas Mitchell, who before this film was best known as the drunken Doc Boone in STAGECOACH (1939), plays Uncle Billy, who could easily be the Doc’s ancestor. Mitchell was a very busy actor, appearing in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, GONE WITH THE WIND and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, all in 1939. One of the great American character actors, Mitchell appeared in films and on television from 1936 to 1961.

But there are also many minor characters that deserve mention as they add to both the texture of Bedford Falls and to the depth of the story. Bert (Ward Bond), the cop and Ernie (Frank Faylen) the cab driver, would later be immortalized as characters on Sesame Street. Bond appeared in numerous films and was an accomplished character actor. Faylen would go on to be Dobie Gillis’s father in that 1950’s TV series. While Gloria Grahame is best known as a femme fatale, in this film she plays Violet Bick, a one-time rival for George’s affections. While we never know what she does for a living, we do get the impression that she has loose morals. People become suspicious of George when he tries to help her by giving her money to start over in New York City.

No discussion of the supporting cast would be complete without mention of Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu. After all, it is the petals from a flower she won in class that prove to George that he is back in his true life. Zuzu’s petals are almost as famous as the line about when a bell rings an angel earns their wings, which is also once delivered by Zuzu. Grimes was also in THE BISHOP’S WIFE, which came out the following year. Like Jimmy Stewart, Grimes has two-holiday classics on her brief acting resume.

While I have seen this film many times, I cannot help but to cry at the end. The film has just the right mix of love, despair, hokum, and faith to get me to react. I’m not sure what buttons Capra is trying to push, but he certainly hits mine. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is the perfect Christmas film. If you’re feeling blue, as many do at this time of year, the film will remind you of the effect you’ve had on others; even if you don’t think you have had any. And if you’re feeling good, then the film will remind you how lucky you are and remind you that we’re all only one action away from maybe losing it all.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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