Saturday, 10 December 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Year:  1946
Director:  Frank Capra
Screenplay:  Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Farank Capra, based on the short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern
Starring:  James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy

Christmas time again:  The decorations go up, enough food is bought to feed a small army, parents fight with other desperate hollow eyed shoppers for the chance to get their hands on the latest must-have toy, Cliff Richard and Slade dominate the radio for weeks on end, forgotten comedy shows wheel out special extended episodes, office workers jeapordise their careers in drunken rampages after the work parties, and It's a Wonderful Life makes it's annual appearance.

The film revolves around George Bailey (Stewart), who lives in the small town of Bedford Falls, and has dreams of becoming a famous architect and travelling the world.  However, because of his innate drive to help his family and friends he stays to take over the family Buildings and Loan association, eventually giving up on his dreams entirely to stay in town and marry girl next door Mary Hatch (Reed).  As he comes into conflict with the wealthy and evil Henry Potter (Barrymore), George's life begins to unravel.  Eventually, on Christmas Eve he decides to commit suicide and a strange angel, Clarence (Travers), is sent to help him, by showing him what the world would be like if he had never existed.

This film has a reputation for being the very epitome of schmaltzy, feel-good sentiment.  However there is more to it than that.  The film, for the most part at least, is actually very dark.  Don't forget, it is about a man who is driven to the very brink of suicidal despair.  However, in a way the darkness makes the light shine more brightly.  It features some superb performances, especially from James Stewart, who plays the everyman role that he was so famous for, and yet provides layers of self-doubt, despair and rage balanced against the essential decency of George's personality.

Not a great success on it's original release, the film became an acknowledged classic through being a staple of Christmas TV schedules.   The film is occasionally a little too pious, but not too much.  It is essentially a fable.  Ultimately though the title comes across as being somewhat ironic.  How wonderful is George Bailey's life, really?  And, more importantly, how wonderful will it remain?  The film itself has developed a life of it's own and hangs in the movie firmanent somewhere beyond criticism.  It's very easy to be cynical about it, but it still packs a powerful punch and is probably the best Christmas movie of all time and is likely to be still viewed for as long as the holidays are celebrated.

It's a Wonderful Life for Donna Reed and James Stewart



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