a critiQal film review It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Plot: George Bailey (Stewart) has so many problems he is thinking about ending it all – and it’s Christmas! As the angels discuss George, we see his life in flashback. As George is about to jump from a bridge, he ends up rescuing his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence then shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all of his good deeds over the years. Will Clarence be able to convince George to return to his family and forget suicide?

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  • ...a strong performance by James Stewart and a new(er) twist on the classic Scrooge story gives this film its timeless appeal.

With Christmas fast approaching, it seemed appropriate to pick a Christmas-themed film to add to our Christmas Movie Marathon. But which one? As we had already watched newer favorites like The Santa Clause (1994) and Arthur Christmas (2011), we knew we were going to have to pick one of the classics.

Originally, we were going to watch either the old classic A Christmas Story or Miracle on 34th Street, but in the end we went with the Frank Capra classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, since neither of us had actually seen that one before. Would this 40’s film still be worth watching today, or had time ravaged this classic too badly?

James Stewart is the star of It’s A Wonderful Life, and he is able to create a very likable character in George Bailey. It’s a basically a retelling of the character’s life, and, while the kid version of George is decent enough, Stewart’s portrayal is what really makes the film a classic. He is easily able to keep the audience entertained even through the humdrum of his everyday life, and viewers will easily understand why people like the character. Sure, he’s honest, hard-working and self-sacrificing, but it’s Stewart’s portrayal that really makes George shine.

The rest of the cast is decent enough to back James Stewart up. Donna Reed (who became better known for “The Donna Reed Show” (TV)) is at her best during her character’s courtship with George, and fades more into the background later on. Lionel Barrymore is the bad guy of the pic, the snobby Mr. Potter, and plays his character with just the right touch of evil intent. Henry Travers is also a standout in It’s A Wonderful Life, as his bumbling angel adds just the right touch of comic relief at the right time in the film.

The story itself has a timelessness about it, as it takes the classic Christmas Carol storyline and tweaks it to deliver something that, while it hints at it’s roots, also delivers it’s own spin that seems more at home on the classic series “The Twilight Zone” (TV). Unlike that other tale, though, there are a few missteps at crucial points in the film that will leave the viewer questioning the actions of the characters. In fact, the very thing that leads George Bailey to his crucial turning point isn’t even his fault, yet only the evil Mr. Potter ever makes mention of it once George takes the blame for it upon himself (“you?” he murmurs. “Oh yes, you!” – or something similar). Even the person whose actions are actually responsible for the dilemma never even mentions it at the climax of the film! How is this glossed over – especially after a big to-do is made about what happened moments before?

Still, the “this is life without George Bailey” scenario presented in It’s A Wonderful Life, which itself is another take on Ebenezer Scrooge’s visits with the ghosts, is a smart way of taking the classic story and giving it a twist that makes it different enough to be worth watching. They could have done a lot more, showcasing so many of the people that George has affected. But by focusing at first on a character viewers hardly know, then honing in on the much more familiar family element, the film leads George – and the viewer – down the road gradually, until both accept the reality of the situation. It’s definitely keeps the viewer’s interest, and it’s easy to see George’s confusion and fear as he encounters more and more familiar people in this new reality.

Of course, as is a must for any Christmas story, the tale ends on a happy note – and so does the viewer’s impression of It’s A Wonderful Life. Despite being presented in black and white, this new(er) spin on the classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge is as timeless as that tale, and it’s no wonder that this film has become a Christmas tradition for so many.

With a strong performance by James Stewart leading the way and a climax that will stick with you (despite the glossed-over errors that lead you there), It’s A Wonderful Life is worth re-watching again and again.

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