Well, it’s the big day. December 25th. Christmas Day. And what better accompaniment to your full bellies and sense of contentment than another viewing of an all-time classic and one of the best Christmas movies of all time.
George Bailey (James Stewart) is about to find himself at the lowest point of his life, in a very dark place. He has been a great bonus to the small town of Bedford Falls and has saved many a poor soul from the slums of nasty Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He’s also been a great husband to Mary (Donna Reed) and is a fantastic father. So just what has happened to bring him so low? That’s up to Clarence (Henry Travers) to find out. Clarence is an angel who has yet to earn his wings and this situation just might give him the chance. But first he, and the viewer, gets to learn as much as possible about the life of George Bailey.
People may not be surprised to find that It’s A Wonderful Life is yet another movie I struggle to write about and review. It was, and always will be, a perfect viewing experience and it’s on TV every Christmas for a good reason. It’s one of those movies that can rightfully fight for the top spot on any list of beloved classics.
James Stewart has had many great roles in his career but, arguably, none better than George Bailey. Donna Reed is a darling (a word I don’t think I have EVER used before to describe someone in my reviews but it’s just so appropriate here), Lionel Barrymore is an exceptionally loathsome man, Henry Travers is a delight for every minute of his limited screentime and Thomas Mitchell (as the absent-minded Uncle Billy) is also great. In fact, I could use up much more space just singling out every single actor and character (Harry, Violet, Bert, Ernie, etc) but I think it’s enough to just say that everyone will linger in your memory for a long time after the credits have rolled.
The script is superb, packed with quotable lines and wonderfully sketching out a whole cross-section of Bedford Falls, while Frank Capra weaves his magic over material that people often forget is very, very dark indeed. Viewers remember James Stewart running through the snow and appreciating everything around him, they remember the last lines and they remember the warm, rosy feeling it gives them. But also remember that this is about a man who has tried all of his life to escape the clutches of a small town he loves and probably resents in equal measure (I’m sure Bedford Falls is a lovely place to live but George wanted to see the world, at least for a little while, and somehow never got out of his local zip code), this is about a man brought so low that he lashes out at all those around him before seriously considering suicide. He’s a man who has sacrificed personal gain, apparently, for the sake of others and suddenly feels as if he has lost out on everything he may have been due.
It’s A Wonderful Life has greed, theft, suicidal thoughts, love and deceit. You might not think it has the ingredients for the perfect Christmas film and yet, I assure you, it does. It says so much about, unsurprisingly enough, the true way to make a great life for yourself and it inspires smiles and even tears.
If you watch this movie and, somehow, don’t warm to it then at least take away one of the important lessons it contains: “No man is a failure who has friends”. Keep that in mind and perhaps you can strive to amass the riches that George Bailey has in his life, even when he doesn’t realise it.
DIRECTOR: FRANK CAPRA
WRITER: FRANCES GOODRICH, ALBERT HACKETT, FRANK CAPRA (BASED ON A STORY BY PHILIP VAN DOREN STERN)
STARS: JAMES STEWART, DONNA REED, LIONEL BARRYMORE, THOMAS MITCHELL, HENRY TRAVERS
RUNTIME: 130 MINS APPROX