It’s a Wonderful Life (review)

Posted: December 22, 2012

The nostalgia of the 1940s is still present in this classic Christmas tale

Put aside, just for a short moment, the high-definition images of a holiday blockbuster; the action-dramas, the feel-good comedies, the well-awaited sequels. Lock all images of a typical film with a colossal budget and superior digital effects away for storage.

Now, without growing overly sentimental, think about traditions coinciding with December and the Christmas holidays. Numerous images come to mind: multi-colored boxes enticing children under the jade needles of pines trees delicately adorned with flecks of silver tinsel and ornaments, a cherry-nosed, white-bearded man in a ruby coat cramming through the fire places of well-behaved children with the intention of delivering toys and other goods, and arguably, a television screen displaying the monochrome likeness of George Bailey and the phrase “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”.

This quote comes from the 1940s film, It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic film that brings together the holiday spirit of appreciation and with it a story worth remembering.

Released in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life was directed by Frank Capra, who had already created a name in the movie business with the 1934 film It Happened One Night, the first film to win all five major Academy Awards (Best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay).

Jimmy Stewart starts as George, a businessman whose good nature and charity at times lead to unnecessary difficulties in other aspects of his life. The film starts in the perspective of Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), a “second-class angel” who has yet to earn his wings. In order to further his rank, Clarence is appointed to save George, whose life begins to unfold, transforming into the actual film.

Down on his luck in financial crisis with the bank and questioning the actual meaning of his life, George is soon awakened to how important of a role he really plays in both the town and the lives of those he has connections with.

Due to his popularity early in his career, many of Capra’s films were highly anticipated by audiences everywhere. Despite this, initially, It’s a Wonderful Life received average reviews by critics, even after its nominations for five Academy Awards.

Bosley Crowther, in a review in the New York Times when the film debuted, said, “the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it – its illusory concept of life,” while still complimenting other points of the film. Nevertheless, only later would the movie be recognized as a classic once it began to run on television, over and over during Christmas season.

A movie about how critical it is to analyze your own importance, the story itself is a rather simple one. And while complexity is not a necessity nor is it a requirement to make a good movie (the modesty of a film’s plot is what defines the purity in many), the casualness of the plot is what It’s a Wonderful Life makes it simultaneously off-putting. Adversity is present, along with the pleasing “lasso the moon” cheeriness that makes all potential viewers’ hearts flop. Aside from the emotional zeal, however, there’s little room in the memories of the audience over what the film is really about:

The immense greed of the bank and the turmoil within a single man’s head as he struggles to prosper both a family and an occupation, eventually leading him to near-suicidal? No, most will recall the loyalty of the townsfolk, the boldness of George’s actions, and the joy of the Christmas holidays.

Amidst the cheer, however, is exactly the reason why the film is presented with such an up-beat tone. Present was a generation inflicted by the cruelties of World War II and the Great Depression. With little prosperity and even less hope for the future, It’s A Wonderful Life gave the people a character they could relate to – a man who, due to his diminishing financial wealth, succumbs to his own grief.

What the film did was give a story that everyone knew and gave it a happy ending, which was exactly what they needed in a time of such desperation. And that’s exactly why it’s worth watching today. The problems presented aren’t exclusive, but can be linked to any potential audience.

Pamper the lust for those box-office hits soon to be released this winter season, but don’t forget to slip backward in time and dally with the essence of the timeless films that – in the case of It’s a Wonderful Life – are not only enjoyable to view, but also convey the charisma of agelessness and celebration without the help of flashy 3-D, HD graphics, explosives, and high-speed car chases.

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