(Originally Reviewed in 2012)
Out of all the movies we watch each Christmas season, no other holiday film hits me quite like Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Over the years this 1946 gem has become a perennial favorite. But this beloved feature can’t be easily pigeonholed as a simple Christmas movie. Its so much more. It’s a tremendous bit of filmmaking full of warmth, some really funny humor, a well-written story, a terrific ensemble, and a heartfelt ending that I still adore. It’s a true motion picture classic that shouldn’t be reserved for just the holiday season.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the movie that introduced me to the great Jimmy Stewart. Over the years, he would grow to be one of my favorite actors. Here he plays George Bailey, an adventure-minded young man who desires to shake off the dust of his small hometown and see the world. But in his close-knit community things don’t always go as planned. And in George’s case, circumstances would always arise that managed to keep him in Bedford Falls.
The story (co-written by Capra, Frances Goodrich, and Albert Hackett) is an adaptation of Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift”. It begins close to its end. George as is at the end of his rope and is thinking about taking his own life. But Heaven has heard the many prayers of his family and friends and is set to intervene by sending George’s guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) to remind him of the wonderful life he has lived. In order for the plan to be successful, first Clarence needs to know about the man he’s saving. So he (and the audience) are shown how George’s life has unfolded.
We’re shown that at a young age George Bailey had a significant influence on Bedford Falls. That influence took off after he finished high school and went to work with his father at the Bailey Building and Loan, the only thing in town the miserly money-grubbing Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) couldn’t get his hands on. It’s George’s fight with Potter that leads to his troubles. But it’s also the thing that leads to an important revelation – he truly has had a wonderful life.
The beautiful and charming Donna Reed plays Mary Hatch who first catches George’s eye at a high school dance. The spark between them is undeniable and over time they marry. Stewart and Reed have a delightful chemistry which is evident in every scene they share. Reed really impresses with her ability to convey the love-sick sweetness of young Mary as well as the motherly concern and maturity of older Mary. Together, she and Stewart are a treat.
The rest of the supporting cast are equally great. Barrymore is pitch-perfect as the story’s despicable antagonist who has he hands around the throats of everyone in town. Travers has a ton of fun playing Clarence, the most unlikely of guardian angels. His 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. The rest of the cast wonderfully brings life and personality to George’s family and Bedford Falls.
But at the end of the day this is Stewart’s show. He brings depth and personality to George Bailey and portrays him in a way that only Stewart could. He’s the charismatic engine that drives this unforgettable and utterly timeless classic. Surprisingly “It’s a Wonderful Life” wasn’t the most well reviewed movie when it was first released. But over time, especially during the Christmas season, it has earned the high praise it has so richly deserves.