Starring : James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
For those who listened to my last appearance on AmigoRadio (and if you didn’t, why not!?), you will know that my experience with those films released before the late 1980s is patchy, at best. For every 12 Angry Men I have seen, there is a Sound of Music I haven’t. For every Grease, a West Side Story. As a self-confessed movie fan, I find this a little naive of me and have therefore made a concerted effort in recent years to fill those gaps.
The latest addition to my collection is It’s A Wonderful Life, arguably one of the most famous Christmas movies of all time. The story follows the ups and downs of George Bailey (Stewart) as his well-planned life becomes unravelled as he is coerced into taking on the family business, then falling for his future wife Mary (Reed), and finally the failure of his business, all the while battling the disappointment of not becoming the traveller he had hoped to be, and dealing with Mr Potter (Barrymore), the richest and most powerful man in town who seems to have a vendetta against Bailey’s idealistic values.
Eventually life becomes too much for good old George, a man who is loved by all and who tries to help others in need even when it is to his detriment. One Christmas Eve, when the world finally seems to be turning against him, and he faces jail for accusations of fraud, he decides to take his life, only to be saved by Clarence Odbody (Travers), an Angel wanting to earn his wings by showing Bailey how life would be without him.
In the past, when watching movies made before my time, I have had difficulty identifying with the story, the acting, the themes etc, and so I had legitimate concerns as to whether I would actually enjoy a film made nearly 70 years ago. These concerns were apparently unfounded as I can honestly say, hand on heart, without a shadow of a doubt this is one of the best films I have ever seen. I simply cannot express how much joy this film gave me, as I sat there watching, almost slack-jawed, in enjoyment of scene after scene.
By comparison to modern examples, the acting was a little cheesy and over the top, however this is in keeping with the acting at that time for a film of this genre. Stewart is charming as the lovable Bailey, with every line delivered with ease and joy. He does an excellent job of portraying a man who is positive until the very last, and only when his whole life is on the verge of collapse does he find it difficult to cope with. Whilst the character is somewhat unbelievable, he is however very likable.
Reed, a demure beauty if ever there was one, plays the straight role exceedingly well, and her Mary is the perfect foil for Bailey’s enthusiasm. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and Mary is that woman. Even to the very last she stands by him and believes in his aspirations and goals.
I should also complement Barrymore and Travers for playing the machiavellian Potter and angelic Clarence respectively. Through their actions and guidance, George’s character is first destroyed by Potter and then rebuilt by Clarence. They perfectly play their parts, and deal out equal measures of manipulation and empathy.
As I have mentioned above, sometimes films can be difficult to identify with, and whilst the morals and contained in It’s A Wonderful Life hold little relevance to today’s society, it was refreshing to watch something that not only makes me appreciate the simpler times, but also wish for it. Even when dealing with World War II, one of history’s most tragic times, it was referenced in such a way as to condemn it to a side note of the story, without any real panic or peril.
The only moments of any peculiarity came at the almost gratuitous sexual references. Whether it was the promiscuous Violet Bick, the scene of suggested nakedness of Mary or her assertion that George was “making violent love to me”, the littered suggestions of sex were somewhat out of place in a family movie, especially one made in an era where such references would have been strongly frowned upon. By today’s standards they are tame, but one can only imagine what mothers across the world must have thought!
The story is straightforward enough, and somewhat reminiscent of A Christmas Carol, however it is done in such a charming and interesting way as to breathe life back into the story. At a manageable 2 hours and 10 minutes, I implore anyone who is feeling like life is getting them down to watch this and tell me they are not uplifted and inspired.
It’s a Wonderful Life? It’s a wonderful film.
Rating: 5 out of 5