There are several Christmas movies that we must watch every holiday season, many I have recently reviewed. But there isn’t any other Christmas movie that makes me feel as warm as Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” does. Over the years this 1946 gem has become a perennial holiday favorite. But there’s no way you can pigeonhole this wonderful film into just one category. It’s a tremendous bit of filmmaking that features genuinely funny humor, well written dramatic material, the perfect cast, and a heart-warming ending that I still hold close to my heart. Sure, this is a great Christmas movie, but its much more. It’s a special and near flawless film that stands on its own as a true motion picture classic and its greatness shouldn’t be reserved for just the holiday season.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the movie that introduced me to Jimmy Stewart when I was a kid. Over the years, Stewart has grown to be one of my favorite actors of all time. Here he plays George Bailey, an adventurous young man who desires to shake off the dust of his small town of Bedford Falls and see the world. But things aren’t always that simple in a close-knit small town and something always happened that managed to keep George there. The narrative actually begins close to the end of the story. George as is at the end of his rope and is thinking about taking his own life. But Heaven has heard the prayers of his family and friends and is set to intervene by sending his guardian angel down to remind him of the wonderful life he has had. In order for the plan to be successful, his guardian angel and the audience are shown how his life unfolds.
We learn that at a young age George Bailey had a crucial influence on the small town of Bedford Falls. That influence grew after he finished high school and went to work with his father at Bailey Building and Loan. The building and loan has become a vital part of the small town and it’s the only thing that the town’s money-grubbing oppressor Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) can’t get his hands on. It’s George’s fight with Potter that leads to his troubles but its also the one thing that leads to an important revelation – He truly has an amazing life in the small town of Bedford Falls. The gorgeous Donna Reed plays Mary who first catches George’s eye at a high school dance and eventually becomes his wife. Stewart and Reed have a wonderful chemistry which is evident in every scene they have together. Reed really impresses with her abilities to convey the love-sick sweetness of young Mary as well as the motherly concerned maturity of older Mary. Both she and Stewart are joys to watch.
The rest of the supporting cast are splendid. I mentioned Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter. He is perfect as the mean, despicable antagonist of the film who has he hands around every throat in town. Barrymore is detestably good. Henry Travers also has a ton of fun playing Clarence Odbody, the most unlikely of guardian angels. His interactions and back-and-forth’s with Stewart offer some of the film’s best moments. And then there is Thomas Mitchell as the absent-minded uncle Billy. He has several fabulous scenes. I could go on and on about the cast. Throughout the movie we get to know many of the people in the town and in George’s family and all of them fit perfectly into the narrative.
But at the end of the day this is Stewart’s show. He develops George Bailey and makes him unique in a way that only Stewart could do. That’s probably the key ingredient that makes this such a great classic. And as bright as Stewart shines, Donna Reed matches him scene for scene. She’s beautiful and her performance is brilliant. In fact, brilliant is a great way to describe this entire movie. Everything about it works and it snugly fits into the category of timeless. It wasn’t the most well reviewed movie when it was first released, but I’m glad that over time it has gained the high praise that it so richly deserves. I love this movie.
VERDICT – 5 STARS