As much as possible here with my reviews, I do my best to avoid huge, sweeping generalities about moviegoers and their likes and dislikes...this is not one of those times. Released in 1946 to mixed reviews and a horrific showing in theaters, It's a Wonderful Life was pretty much left by the wayside for many years only to be given new life as a new generation of moviegoers rediscovered it in the 1970s and 1980s. Let me say this about critics and audiences in 1946 who didn't think too highly of this movie; they are IDIOTS.
If director Frank Capra can be accused of anything for his abilities as a moviemaker, it was that his films tended to be on the sentimental, downright sappy side. The description 'Capra-esque' is used all the time now to describe a movie that doesn't have a mean bone in its body. Is that really a bad thing? Coming from a movie fan who can be pretty cynical, doesn't really enjoy Hollywood happy endings, and is ready to roll his eyes at a moment's notice, that's saying something. 'Wonderful Life' is sappy, sentimental and meant to tug at your heart strings. What's wrong with a movie that is content being wholesome and entertaining?
For those people who haven't seen the movie -- I think they're called Communists -- here's the quick breakdown. George Bailey (James Stewart) is a family man in the town of Bedford Falls with his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their four kids. George runs the Building and Loan, a small business that is basically all that remains in town not owning to rich old curmudgeon Mr. Potter (played to evil perfection by Lionel Barrymore). After years of struggling to stay above water financially, George has hit his breaking point. His partner and family relative Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) lost $8,000 that the Building and Loan needs to survive. Looking at a lengthy jail sentence, George seeks a way out and comes to the conclusion he's worth more to his family dead than alive.
But standing on a bridge ready to jump into the freezing waters below, George instead has to jump in after another man that fell in. His name is Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel 2nd Class -- he doesn't have his wings yet -- and he's been sent to save George. But to convince him he's real, Clarence gives George a rare gift...to see what the world would be like if he was never born. Given this opportunity, George sees what a profound affect he's had on people all his life.
Much of the story is George's life seen in flashback as Clarence learns about the man he's supposed to save. This first 75 minutes is key, absolutely essential to show what George's makeup is. His life didn't turn out anywhere near what he had planned, but even with some detours and changes, he has a happy life through his marriage with Mary and his four children. He has family and friends and almost a whole town that needs him. These parts set the stage perfectly for the last hour of the movie as George is forced to take stock of his life and see what he's really accomplished with a life he thinks has been a waste to a certain point.
But the highlight of the movie is that final hour, one of the best extended sequences in the history of the movies. Watching George realize what's going on as he sees how different the world would be if he'd never been born is a series of perfect little vignettes. This leads him to realize his life was actually pretty great, building up to one of the all time great endings to a movie -- seen HERE if you've never seen it. Now I'm not usually a crier with movies, but I'll admit to crying like a little baby at this ending. It is the perfect ending to this story, well almost, but more on that later.
Jimmy Stewart had a lot of classics in his distinguished career, but this movie easily goes Top 5 with much of the praise coming from his performance. He brings George Bailey to life in creating one of Hollywood's greatest characters. As his wife, Donna Reed is the all-American girl everyone wants to marry, and the two do have great chemistry. On a side note, I find it hard to believe that Reed's Mary could not have found a husband if George wasn't around, but maybe that's just me. The supporting cast is just as good with Barrymore never more evil, Travers very funny as Clarence, the 293-year old angel, and Mitchell as bumbling Uncle Billy. There's also Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, and many more recognizable faces.
As absolutely perfect as the ending is in terms of producing an emotion in the audience, there is a question left unresolved. What about evil Mr. Potter? Saturday Night Live answered that question with one of their most inspired skits ever, check it out HERE at Hulu. The original though is the definition of a Christmas classic that's success just keeps on growing. If you haven't seen this movie yet, first what's wrong with you, and second go find it now.
It's a Wonderful Life <----trailer (1946): ****/****