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Saturday, December 10, 2011


Not Rated

"What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary."
-- George Bailey

It's a Wonderful Life is a 1946 Academy Award-nominated drama directed by Frank Capra that has become a classic around the Christmas holiday. The film starts in the heavens with a couple of angels telling another angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), whom is contemplating ending his life. Clarence learns that George's life has held a lot of ups and downs. Growing up in Bedford Falls, his only aspiration was to get away from his hometown and see the world. After the untimely death of his father, however, he has to forego his aspirations and take over the family business: the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan. Over the years, he still plans on getting away, but time and time again, incidents occur that prevent him from doing so. In response, he creates a seemingly meaningful existence being a man of the people, and with the help and love of his wife Mary (Donna Reed), he does his best to keep his life on an even keel. On an especially bad night, however, his life takes a turn for the worse, so Clarence comes down to earth to show him why he should keep living.

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't seen, or at least heard of, It's a Wonderful Life. It's a staple for the holiday season, and I'm sure it'll be playing dozens of times over the course of this month. I'm sure I saw snippets of the flick over the years, but I don't think I ever sat down and watched it in its entirety until my junior year of high school. At the time, I was in my school's theater class, and we were preparing a small-scale stage version of the film for the holiday season. So, as one can imagine, we had to watch the film in order to understand the story and the characters. (For those of you interested, I was cast as George's brother Harry in every show, and played Martini the bartender as well in some of the shows.) And seeing as this is the first time I've watched the film since performing in those shows seven years ago, I'm relatively surprised that I remember it so fondly and vividly as I do.

Let's start with the screenplay, shall we? The first ninety minutes of the film serve as a type of flashback as we see the visions Clarence sees as he learns about George Bailey's life. We're given the most important aspects of his life, seeing the moments that crafted him into the man he became and ultimately led him to his current predicament. There's an interesting sense of connection in realizing that, while we as the audience are learning about Bailey's life, another character is doing the same. Even though we don't see a physical Clarence until the film's final act, we already feel a connection with him, having gone through this entire experience with him already. And while the storyline itself is intriguing enough to pull even the most casual viewer into engagement, the beautifully-written lead character is a marvel to behold. George Bailey is written as a man with a slew of aspirations but also as a man who puts everyone before himself. At every turning point of his life, he has the opportunity to continue in the path he had planned; however, he instead chooses to take the path that benefits those people around him. This selfless behavior may lead him to a lot of his troubles, but he continues to choose to be the better man and help those around him.

The acting in It's a Wonderful Life is also top-notch. While Stewart generally brings a certain type of character to all his roles, it never works better than his everyman George Bailey. He's an instantly likable character, and from the moment you meet him, you'll fall in love with him down-home charm and laid-back attitude. He's also able to showcase his wide range of acting skills, bringing us very manic moments of happiness to very downtrodden moments of deep depression. He climbs the scale of emotions throughout this film, and it works exceptionally well at all times. Next to George Bailey, every other character is either supporting or fleeting, but all play their parts well. Travers does a very good job in his limited screen-time, as does the aforementioned Reed. Also be on the lookout for a dastardly wicked performance from Lionel Barrymore, who plays Henry F. Potter, the film's main antagonist. I could probably go on for ages if I wanted to break down each and every character, but I won't go that far into it. Just know that the ensemble cast is spectacular and fires on every cylinder.

Despite all that, I think what makes It's a Wonderful Life such a fantastic Christmas film is that it's not really about Christmas. While most Christmas-oriented movies are centered around the holiday and sometimes shove it down our throat, only the final thirty minutes of this film take place on the holiday itself. Because of this, there isn't enough time to get into all the details of the holiday, especially considering George is having an emotional breakdown amidst the cheer and holiday spirit. In a way, the fact that it all culminates on Christmas makes George's ultimate revelation all the more beautiful. He comes running back to his family and friends on a day that's supposed to be about love and human fellowship. Had the filmmakers decided to make a more holiday-oriented film, I'm not sure the film's final moments would have been as powerful.

Overall, this is a definite must-see for anyone who has yet to take it in. I can guarantee that it will play on numerous occasions during the month of December, so please check your local listings and grab the family for a movie night. It's easily the best Christmas film I've ever seen, and it will always remain one of my favorites.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A+
2 Thumbs Up

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