Whenever these classic movie titles get tossed around, us newer generations will always have different ways of hearing all about them. The most common way is the parody since The Simpsons and Family Guy have probably parodied nearly everything in existence. Then there’s film students who get forced to watch them for Film Appreciation like I did for Citizen Kane. Of course there’s good old fashioned word of mouth from people who were around when this came out or at least when it was still relatively new. For this movie in particular I actually first read about it in one of the Sabrina The Teenage Witch novelizations where Hilda suggests making two sequels, titled “It’s Another Wonderful Life” and “It’s A Wonderful Life With A Vengeance” respectively. I kept hearing about it and, like so many of these classic movies, I knew all about it (or thought I did) but never actually saw it. Well that part is history anyway.
It is Christmas Eve in what is presumably the year 1946 (that’s when the film was released) and in the small American town of Bedford Falls we hear a large collection of people praying for a man called George Bailey. We then see things from the perspective of some of the big guys “up there” or angels for those who don’t want to be PC about it. An Angel Second Class called Clarence is offered an opportunity to get his wings if he helps out the man called George Bailey because he will soon be thinking about killing himself. We are shown snippets of George’s life that tell us exactly who he is and how he gets to the situation he is in right now. As a child he dreamed of going off to see the world on his travels and then going to college, anything to get him out of the rut that is Bedford Falls. However his father dies of a stroke when George is just about to leave for college and he is the only one who can take over the family business to stop it from being done away with by the rich and cruel Mr Potter. That is just the first of many things that leads to George eventually setting aside his own hopes and chances at happiness in order to help others, like giving away his honeymoon money when the stock market crashes, moving into an old house that he has to fix up and just generally fighting the constant battle against Potter’s ruthlessness. Once Clarence arrives to help him out, George sees exactly how things would have been if he was never around.
I guess to someone who’s heard all about the film but never seen it, the main thing they know about the plot is that an angel tries to stop a man from killing himself by showing him what the world would have been like without him. Well it then comes as a bit of a shock when you first watch the film and it’s actually over an hour before we get to that part of the story. You might actually find yourself getting impatient at hearing George’s back story and wondering when we’re actually going to see Clarence show him how great his life is. I guess that is one of the problems of what they call pop-cultural osmosis where people have heard a lot about different things in pop culture but have never actually seen them. For example, everyone knows about silent movies but how many people have actually watched one? And another thing about this movie and the pop-cultural osmosis is something of the same problems that Slumdog Millionaire has – it’s promoted as an uplifting and heart-warming story which it is towards the end. But, as an episode of Friends pointed out, before you can have a happy ending that means something, you’ll have to go through tragedy and sadness first.
This is really the role James Stewart is most well-known for. I was never a fan of his, despite seeing Rope and Vertigo but this is his strongest career performance ever. We see the adult George at the start as this young cheerful upbeat guy who has his whole life ahead of him and then we slowly watch that sunny and jovial attitude get chipped away as the universe keeps throwing the tragedies at him. Not a lot of actors can pull something like that off and I’m convinced that no other actor could help us empathise with George the way James Stewart does. If there’s any complaint about his performance it’s that his voice gets annoying at times, especially during the “Pottersville” sequence. You really would expect the guy to get the picture at that point, but I suppose 1940s folk were a little too sophisticated to immediately accept something mystical.
Donna Reed plays George’s perfect woman Mary and she has her own unique charm as only a Golden Age of Hollywood leading lady could have. We see Mary and we like her but we are also afraid for the longest time because we are convinced that the universe wouldn’t allow George to have something that makes him happy and we’re sure that at some point she’s going to be taken away from him, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. Mary is an enchanting lady and she manages to be quirky and funny instead of just sweet and pure like so many leading ladies of the time. I mean I can’t imagine Bette Davis or Joan Crawford shouting so plainly “he’s making violent love to me mother” in a 40s film.
Before going for the obvious, I do have a handful of other favourite scenes in the film. The scene after the graduation party where George and Mary are walking home is nicely written and a good way to develop a romance for the audience. It has some cute awkward moments but they aren’t clichéd and the writers put in a few bits of comedy in there to not make the whole lasso the moon thing seem too cheesy. And then there’s the hilarious moment where poor Mary loses her dressing gown and has to hide in the bushes.
Okay, I’m going to talk about the ending so if you don’t want to be completely spoiled then look away. It is truly one of the most beautiful and heart-warming ending there ever was to a film. It’s right up there with Empire of the Sun for movie endings that could make even the manliest of punks well up with (manly) tears. It just goes to show that going through all the tragedy in the first two acts makes this ending so much more beautiful and uplifting. The part that always gets me is when Harry says “a toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town” and even when little Zuzu says the whole angel’s wings thing which is now iconic in film history.
Well I think that’s my last really old film out of the way on my list and I think it’s only fitting that it should go to a film that has one of the best endings in history. I’ve said this before but if I had seen it in the cinema, I would have gotten up at the end and applauded as I’m sure so many other people did (and if they were too sophisticated I’m sure they did it in their heads). I’ve heard that this film has actually been prescribed as a cure for depression. Well, I don’t know exactly if that would work but it could certainly help, especially since George doesn’t get some magic solution to make himself better and everything isn’t technically all fine and dandy by the end. However the true magic comes from the fact that it’s normal human kindness cranked up to eleven. The message is a little heavy-handed but I think this is one of those messages that needs to be put across more often. And speaking of heavy handed messages, the whole Twitter thing and all that. You know what I mean....