Who doesnít love "Itís a Wonderful Life"?
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Audiences back in 1946, thatís who. When Frank Capraís holiday staple was first released, it fizzled at the box office. Moviegoers, still recovering from the dark days of World War Two, wanted light, frothy entertainment that would take their minds off the horrors of the European and Pacific battlefields. They wanted Fred and Ginger, they wanted Shirley Temple. They didnít want a story about an unhappy family man at the end of his rope and on the verge of suicide.
"Itís a Wonderful Life," which nowadays calls to mind happy, sentimental feelings when you mention it, is actually a grim little movie which only pulls itself out of a pessimistic spiral in the last ten minutes. It is also one of the best movies ever made about the human condition.
Filmmakers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz ("Glory" and "Legends of the Fall") once called the movie an "amazing dark poem of modern life." They couldnít be more right. "Itís a Wonderful Life" is as pertinent today as it was when it was released 53 years ago. Capraís films were always full of messagesóhonor, loyalty, forgivenessóand nowhere does he preach a better sermon than from the pulpit of Bedford Falls.
For the one or two of you out there who have never seen this cinematic treasure (hint: turn on your TV anytime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, start channel surfing, and youíre bound to land on it), hereís a brief synopsis: George Bailey (James Stewart) is about as nice an American boy as youíre bound to find in a small town. Heís just got one problemóhe wants to get out of his small town, the postcard-perfect Bedford Falls. "I canít wait to shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet," George says to anyone who will listen. But they all know betteróGeorge isnít going anywhere.
The film follows George from childhood where he saves his brotherís life, through his college years where he marries puppy love sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) to the day when his father dies and George must take over the family building and loan company. Through it all, George struggles to get out of Bedford Falls, fruitlessly dreaming of traveling the world like the adventurers he reads about in National Geographic. Complicating Georgeís life is the townís tyrant, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who wants to take over the Bailey Building and Loan Company. Mr. Potter, a "sick, old man," only smiles when he has George in his clutches. Driven to desperation one Christmas Eve, George is about to commit suicide when an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) comes down to show him what life would be like if heíd never been born. As Clarence takes George on a tour through the now-decadent Pottersville, you canít help but think of Ebeneezer Scrooge watching his life unfold before his eyes.
Everyone has a favorite scene from this movie. The Charleston dance sequence where George and Mary teeter unknowingly over the pool. The honeymoon night where Mary fixes up the abandoned house sheís long dreamed of living in. The cathartic finale where the town showers George with their blessings.
My personal favorite (if I was forced to pick just one) comes when George is at the absolute end of his rope, having been squeezed once more in Mr. Potterís fist. He cracks up in his living room, yelling at his children and kicking the furniture. It is the lowest point in Georgeís life and you know, you just know, there is only one other direction he can goóand thatís up. Only trouble is, he doesnít see it yet. The delight comes in knowing better things lie ahead for poor George.
Capra, known for dead-on accuracy in his portrayals of American society ("It Happened One Night," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"), reaches his peak in this classic. Despite its grim premise, Capra manages to extract a stirring, uplifting experience that you wonít soon forget. In fact, "Itís a Wonderful Life" is so indelible, I think most viewers can remember where they were and what they were doing the first time they saw it.
My first time was about thirteen years ago when I was a newlywed and new father. My wife, my infant son and I were spending Christmas in a cottage on the Oregon coast. Our dayís planned events were drowned out by a late afternoon thunderstorm. Surfing through the cable channels, I paused on Jimmy Stewartís face. "Wow," I said, "Iíve heard of this movie, but Iíve never seen it."
My wife looked up, stunned. "Youíve never seen ĎItís a Wonderful Lifeí?"
"And you call yourself an American?"
Itís true, this movie is as much a part of our national holiday culture as after-Thanksgiving sales, bell-ringing Santas and Mr. Grinch. If itís been awhile since youíve watched it, pop it in the VCR, roast some chestnuts and curl up with the ones you love. If youíve never visited Bedford FallsÖ.well, youíre in for a wonderful treat.
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