To be frank, the odds were very much against me liking this this film- the sometimes painfully old-fashioned values, the copious amount of sentimentality- but I have to say it just got to me. And that’s the mark of an effective movie isn’t it… it touches people who aren’t exactly it’s target audience. That said, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is timeless, earnest, and well-made in all respects. And it is certainly a movie that does not need a big budget makeover (keep on walking, Hollywood.)
George Bailey (James Stewart) is a good man, certainly not a perfect man, but a person who is basically devoted to the business of doing the right thing. You see, George wanted to go places- travel the world and become a renowned architect- but life had other plans, keeping him indefinitely in the one-horse town of Bedford Falls, where the corrupt moneylender Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is vying for power.
George marries his true love, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed,) but the drudgery of middle age and the upkeep of his father (Samuel S. Hinds)’s building and loaning business turn George depressed and bitter. On Christmas Eve, a crisis inadvertently caused by George’s slightly dim and hard-drinking Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and his own personal woes leave George standing on the edge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.
A angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) stops George from throwing away his life and shows him the disaster that would have fallen upon everyone George knows if he hadn’t been born. The climax is bittersweet but life-affirming and touching. Some of the gender themes are woefully outdated (like the portrayal of the unmarried Mary Hatch in the George-less reality as a frumpy old maid and a librarian, none the less!) but the general tone of the movie is good.
James Stewart does a great acting job in this, playing a well-developed ordinary guy with a challenging life and a good heart. Donna Reed backs Stewart up nicely in a supporting love-interest role. Some of the scenes are emotionally tough and so more effective (Bailey is not above occasional cruelty, even to his adoring wife.) The only real weakness I see present is the child actor’s performances; they seemed a little fake to me.
I sincerely hope the alleged ‘sequel’ to this movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Continued Story” is a hoax, though I also found out that there is TV remake called “It Happened One Christmas” featuring a female George Bailey. Both films are wrong-headed on every account. You don’t mess with the classics. I picture the quintessential modern-day remake to be directed by that Madea guy, starring the obligatory all-black cast (we’ve got to be inclusive now,) and featuring poo-poo and fart jokes. “Madea’s It’s a Wonderful Life.” Horrors.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is so effective to this day because George is not the perfect person, because no one is an ideal human being. He struggles with the moral crises and questions that plague everyone. He’s an everyman, but he comes up on top and keenly aware of his own worth, which is a happy ending anyone can root for. Because we all want to believe we matter, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” reinforces this belief.
Everyone shouls see “It’s a Wonderful Life” at least once in their lives, especially if they’re feeling down (though learning that George Bailey saves a whole town might make you feel worse, in retrospect.) It’s a classic for a reason, and it has a wonderful cast, though I’ll be damned if little Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) does annoy the bejeezus out of me (her high-pitched squeak of “Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets it’s wings!” is enough to give anyone pause.) But mostly, it is a timeless commentary on the beauty and fragility of the human condition.