IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) review

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Aw, jeez… *puts on my helmet and raises up my shield*

I’ve never seen this movie.

Believe me, the list of classic films that I’ve never seen is long, especially if they were prior to the 1990s. Sue me, I’m more of a modern film watcher. I’m open to the older films, but if they’re not playing in the cinemas, I’m probably not going to go out of my way to watch ’em at home. Luckily, this is one such special occasion.

All I know about this film is that it’s considered to be one of the greatest Christmas films of all time. I’m reading IMDb’s summary and it looks like it’s almost a spin on A Christmas Carole. An angel comes along to show a man how life would look like without him, it’s got that feeling. But I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than that.

Here’s the cast. Starring, we have James Stewart (AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST [1991], THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX [1965], and HARVEY [1950]) and Donna Reed (FROM HERE TO ETERNITY [1953], THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY [1945], and 24 episodes of TV show DALLAS [1978 – 1991]).

Now for the crew. The director, producer, and co-writer is Frank Capra, known for ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944), MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936), and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934). Capra’s partners-in-pen are Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (FATHER OF THE BRIDE PART II [1995], FATHER OF THE BRIDE [1991 and 1950], and THE THIN MAN [1934]). Composing the score is Dimitri Tiomkin, known for DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954), HIGH NOON (1952), and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933). Co-cinematographers, that doesn’t seem normal, are Joseph F. Biroc (AIRPLANE! [1980], THE LONGEST YARD [1974], and 5 episodes of TV show CASABLANCA [1983]) and Joseph Walker (BORN YESTERDAY [1950], MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON [1939], and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT). Finally, the editor is William Hornbeck, known for GIANT (1956), SHANE (1953), and A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951).

Overall, I’m pretty excited for this. It’d be nice to be in on the celebration and love of this film, so bring it on!

This is my honest opinion of: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

(SUMMARY)

The story follows George Bailey (James Stewart). Ever since he was old enough to go to college, he’s wanted to get out of his hometown of Bedford Falls, New York, despite his love for his family and friends. But just before he’s about to leave, a greedy businessman named Mr. Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is determined to own the town of Bedford Falls and all of its businesses. Seemingly all but one particular bank, the Building and Loan, owned by George’s father Harry (Todd Karns), refuses to give in to any offers from Mr. Potter. Things get more complicated as Harry soon passes away, and unless George takes up the family business, Mr. Potter will dissolve the Building and Loan, to which he can’t refuse and postpones his plans of travel. He eventually gets married to his childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) and they have children together, and no matter how many times George tries to leave the town, something always brings him back due to financial troubles or obligations to his business or family. Soon things happen and it becomes too much for him to bear and starts believes that he’d be worth more dead than alive. But the heavens have been watching him all his life and it may be time to step in and help.

(REVIEW)

Dear sweet heavenly Jesus, what in blazes have I been missing out on. This movie is… well, for a lack of better words, wonderful.

I’m honestly at a loss for words. I couldn’t bring myself to write anything during this film, I was so entranced. There’s not one frame of this movie that wasn’t charming and engaging.

Alright, so first off, was this really a thing? Did kids really have… job jobs in the 50’s after school? How did that work? Why isn’t it a thing today? Well, actually, that’s a stupid question, there’s a laundry list of reasons why not. Bigger question is, when did it fizzle out? Because young George (Robert J. Anderson) looked like he had a pretty sweet gig. A kiddie version of a bar, root beer on tap, or whatever the heck that was, I’d have probably sat there at a grown adult! Seriously, what was that?! Why did I have to be born in this day and age?! You 1950’s assholes had the best shit!

I especially love this scene because of how much of a floozy young Violet (Jeanine Ann Roose) is even at that age.

YOUNG VIOLET
I like him.

YOUNG MARY
You like every boy.

YOUNG VIOLET
What’s wrong with that?

By the grace of Heaven, I couldn’t stop laughing. These kids are so innocent and cute, but the surprisingly subtle adult humor just gives it that extra punch. But the movie, unlike humor of today, doesn’t hammer in the adult humor. It’s still played up like a kid saying something that only an adult would get a chuckle out of and the kid has no idea. Any other modern comedy would play into it like they know exactly what they’re saying. Not that kids don’t always know what they’re saying, but still, I like the way the lines are delivered and how the kids are directed. Real innocence. What do you know about that?

I’m sure folks of the time period may not think twice about it, but I’m honestly in envy for how energetic and fun the dancing is in the high school graduation stuff. It feels like it’s really meant to have fun and not to show off sexually. Small note of happiness and not exactly hard to find, but still. Happiness.

Stewart is amazing. I love how George has this unshakable love of doing the right thing. Standing up for his father in the face of the town’s wealthiest and sleaziest man, both as a kid and as an adult. He gives up his college education, gives the money he saved up to his brother Harry, just to keep his father’s company in business. Even giving out his honeymoon money to keep his business afloat. Ha! I’ll never forget that line, “Mama dollar and papa dollar, better start making babies!” Where’s writing like that these days? But more than that, he does have his breaking points. It’s not like he ever wanted to run his father’s business, but he felt compelled to stay and keep it going. He wanted to go on his honeymoon with Mary, but same deal. Even Mary supported his endeavors. When Mr. Potter tries to buy out George for a hefty sum, he’s genuinely tempted and weighs the pros and cons. It takes him some serious effort to tell Potter off. And when Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses the 8,000 dollars, George snaps. He berates him, goes home and takes his anger out on his family. There’s some seriously human flaws in him later on in the story.

But what’s a good husband without an equally good, or even better wife? And that distinguished honor goes to the knock-out, Mary. What a romantic story. Loved him since childhood, when he was too dimwitted to notice, and carried that torch throughout their lives. It was she that offered their 2,000 dollar honeymoon money and it was she that picked the house that they would live in. A house that reflected their lives. It was run down, falling apart, and yet, it stood tall. It never crumbled beyond disrepair and Mary was the support structure, both for the house and her marriage to George. Strong-willed, considerate, smart, and the patience of a saint, she’s arguably one of my favorite characters in the movie.

It’s probably a “good” thing that this movie was made in the 40s because there is some humor here that would not fly today. Chasing a black woman and spanking her butt without them having an intimate relationship? Heck, let’s just extend that to any woman… anyone for that matter. But hey, I guess if that’s the most offensive thing in the movie, then it’s really not that bad as a whole, as it only happens once.

There are about two things that I would nitpick. The first is Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson). His consistent “hee haw” got a little grating. If it was only once or a couple times, then it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But it’s every time the character is featured in a scene, whether in the flesh or off camera.

***SPOILERS***

 

 

 

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The other is… well, I’m not sure how utterly necessary the fantasy elements were. As in, I don’t know if Clarence (Henry Travers) was all that crucial to the story. Here’s what I mean. The story, up until George going to the bridge to commit suicide, has been told rather realistically. It’s a down to earth story with drama and comedy. Nothing fantastical about it, outside of the story being narrated by a pair of angels. We don’t even get to the fantasy elements until the final, what, half hour of the film? There isn’t even really hints of fantasy thrown in. Again, I acknowledge the angels, but that could have easily been replaced by a standard narrator, or cut out completely and the story would have flowed just as nicely and re-purpose Clarence and his role. I know, I know, part of the whole point of the movie is the alternate reality in which George doesn’t exist and he realizes that as hard as his life was, it was his life and he had a lot to be proud of. I just feel like there should have been more fantasy elements thrown in to make it seem more relevant to the story as a whole, rather than a last minute addition. But honestly, it’s done so well that I don’t mind as much as I’m letting on as I can’t imagine what kind of changes I would want to see. Also, I guess this particular story did need that long build-up and have something tear him down so much that only the heavens would be able to save him. A Christmas miracle, I suppose is the point. Effective in it’s own right.

 

 

I guess the best way to go into this movie is to not read anything about it. Because everything will say it’s about how George experiences his life without him in it and what it means for the people of his hometown, when really that stuff is just that last act of the movie. I think it’s best to go in blind, so there isn’t some… modern preconception going in. Not that it’d ruin the experience, mind you. After all, I really enjoyed myself, but any synopsis might still give off the wrong impression.

 

 

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***END SPOILERS***

Did anyone else know about a sequel that was in talks not too long ago? Because, of course a sequel needs to be made from everything these days. Yeah, back in 2015, some bone-head decided that this movie needed one and would follow the exploits of George’s youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) and her grandchildren or something of that sort. It was eventually cancelled for insert reasons here, but truth be told… I can see how a sequel would work. Although the story is certainly about the appreciation of the here and now, rather than the plans of tomorrow and forever, if I were to make a sequel to this movie, I’d have my own idea. Maybe like one of George’s descendants decides to tour the world on behalf of George, to carry on the dream that he couldn’t live out himself. It could be an interesting idea, keeping in with the holiday spirit, showcasing how other cultures embrace the holiday season, comparing and contrasting traditions, I don’t know, there could be something sweet to do with this. But maybe I should keep my trap shut, as we all know that Hollywood wouldn’t do one of it’s most beloved classics any justice. Best not to give them ideas.

Guys, if you’ve been living under a rock, like I apparently have, then it’s time to get out and see this movie. It’s a beautiful ode to life, the holiday spirit, and the appreciation of what you have versus what you want. With brilliant and gripping performances, memorable characters, and timeless story, this is something everyone should be seeing around this time of year. I’m so thankful to finally have this in my mind and I hope to see it many more times as time goes by. This film has my highest of recommendations. It’s a wonderful film.

My honest rating for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946): 5/5

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