In several of the books on screenplay writing I have read, it is recommended that you get to your major plot point (the famous "Plot Point A") by page twenty or, in screen time, twenty minutes into a two-hour movie. What would they say about a film that takes an hour and forty minutes to get to Plot Point A? And this film is one of the most beloved American film of all time!
I've seen IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE more than a dozen times, and it never, ever fails to floor me. It's a film that brings tears to my eyes ten minutes into it (young George Bailey getting slapped around by the distraught druggist) and has at least three other scenes that can make me cry. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE shows us the entire life so far of one man, George Bailey of the small town of Bedford Falls, and then, in the final half hour, shows us (and George) what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never been born. Like CITIZEN KANE, RASHOMON and PULP FICTION, the film throws the basic rules of movie storytelling out the window and, by doing so, emerges as a classic.
But what would IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE be without Jimmy Stewart? Few actors have ever portrayed the depths of human emotion as well as Stewart does in this film. Just look at his face as he clutches his child on Christmas Eve, knowing that, due to financial circumstances beyond his control, his life is now officially a failure. Has any man ever been more heartbroken? Watch him looking at the beautiful Mary (played by the beautiful Donna Reed) as she talks to Sam Wainwright on the phone. Has any man ever been more torn between what he thinks he wants and what is standing right in front of him? Stewart was one of our greatest actors, and any film with him in it is worth a look, but IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is arguably his most amazing and wide-ranging performance and, Stewart being Stewart, it all seems so effortless. That this was Stewart's first film in five years owing to the time spent in military service during World War II makes it all the more remarkable.
I don't often fall in love with fictional characters but what warm-blooded heterosexual man wouldn't want to be married to Mary Bailey, as played by Donna Reed? Every time I watch the film, I can pinpoint the moment when I think "Yes, that's the kind of woman I want!" - when she sacrifices her honeymoon money (all two thousand dollars of it) in order to keep her husband's puny little savings and loan business running for at least one more day. "How much do you need?" she yells. Mary, dear, all I need is you.
Then again, just about every character in this film is cast perfectly, from small parts such as Mr. Gowan the druggist (H. B. Warner, a favorite of Capra's and an actor most famous for playing Jesus Christ in the silent THE KING OF KINGS) to important parts like the foolish but lovable Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell, whom I've never seen give a bad performance). But the two standout performances after Stewart and Reed are Henry Travers as the guardian angel Clarence (last name Oddbody, for those who may need to know this) and Lionel Barrymore as the evil banker Mr. Potter. Travers does wonders as Clarence, who comes to save George from jumping into the river to his death on Christmas Eve (Plot Point A!) Bringing comic relief into the final half hour of the film after a long stretch of misery, Travers creates an innocent, slightly effeminate character who gets shocked reactions from everyone around him. He was equally memorable as a kindly banker in Leo McCarey's THE BELLS OF ST. MARY, a film that gets a friendly plug in this film, its title shown on the marquee of a Bedford Falls theater.
Lionel Barrymore gets the role of his life in the evil Mr. Potter, richest and meanest man in town. He is so evil, he is hilarious, spitting out classic lines such as "George, I am an old man and most people hate me, but I don't like them either so that makes it even." Cherished by the public at the time for his yearly portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge on the radio, Barrymore was confined to a wheelchair at this point in his career, but, as with most of his "wheelchair" performances (see KEY LARGO), you never think about it - he was just that good.
Most geeky movie fans like myself know the legend of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but for those who don't, here it goes: the movie was released in 1947 and, although not a major flop, it lost money at the box office and began a downward spiral for director Frank Capra, one of Hollywood's golden boys at the time. In the days before television, video and DVD, movies simply went away after their initial run, although sometimes popular ones would be rereleased years later. In 1974, the film fell into a murky state of public domain, meaning that it no longer belonged to the original copyright owners but to the public. Thus, any television station that wanted to air it could, and over two decades, it developed into a holiday tradition. Although the legal situation was actually more complicated than anybody realized, the result was that thirty years after its initial release, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE was essentially "re-released" into millions of people's living rooms, and the response was enormous. The film went from being a 1947 box-office disappointment to a treasured classic over the years. Unfortunately, in the 1990s, copyright was restored and now, in the U.S., NBC owns the exclusive television rights to the film. Wisely, they show it twice, in prime time, every Christmas season, but I still prefer the time when you could switch from channel to channel during the holidays and stumble upon IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE at random at any time of the day during the Christmas season.
Time has been kinder to Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE than it has been to many other films. It gets better with each viewing. Even today, sixty years after it was made, it has lost none of its power, and its message - no man is poor if he has friends - still holds true. - JB