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It's A Wonderful Life

(10/10)

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Current Rating 9.42/10 | 43 Votes

     It has a few minor flaws, but what the hell, It's A Wonderful Life is an almost perfect combination of sentiment, realism, fantasy, and genuinely uplifting material (if you don't think too hard). It remains the best movie by the remarkable Frank Capra, well-known for his movies that exceptionally blended happy endings and brutal realism, meaning that, like James Stewart said, Capra "made you pay for those happy endings." In this case, the sufferer is George Bailey (James Stewart). We watch him grow up in the small town of Bedford Falls where, time and time again, he puts aside his wishes and aspirations to help others. Over the course of his life, the disappointments mount, and when a financial crisis lurks, George believes himself worth more dead than alive. Clarence the angel (Henry Travers) is sent down to help him see how false this is. Happy endings ensue.

There are many important things to note about this classic. First and foremost, it's to note that, title and video cover art aside, this is not a happy movie. Sure, you may think that it is at the end, when George hugs the kids, gets the money needed for the S&L, and learns that Clarence got his wings. But, no matter which way you think about it, if you think about it at all, it's a depressing movie. If you're literal-minded and don't believe in angels, look at the timing and observe that, by the time the money was collected, George would have been dead. Or, look at it academically as Ray Carney does in his interesting if overwritten view: "Capra's is finally a tragic sense of life. It's A Wonderful Life is a film of endless frustrations, deferrals of gratification, and of the complete impossibility of representing the most passionate impulses and imaginations of the self in the world...". So there. Too bad everybody forgets what comes before the last ten minutes.

Another thing worth noting is Capra's superlative technique. There's just as strong a sense of composition here as in Notorious, with just as good facial portraits. It's not surprising that the cinematography is excellent, considering that one of his two cinematographers on this film was Joseph F. Biroc, who could make even a movie as inane as The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! look good. He also makes good use of the freeze-frame, and the f/x aren't dated at all (well, maybe those talking stars).

Then there are the performances and unique scenes. James Stewart, of course, is an excellent actor, and his performance here is no exception. Easily making his character as appealing or repellent as need be, he commands the screen and is truly masterful. Equally good is Thomas Mitchell as the dithering and unhelpful Uncle Billy, and Henry Travers as gentle, odd angel Clarence Oddbody. And Capra himself delivers not just the usual charming Capra and dark scenes - there are all scenes of genuine edginess, as close as Capra would get to Mike Leigh - my favorite is the telephone scene, with a drunk and disgruntled Stewart. (Incidentally, there was a TV remake in the 70s, with Stewart's character now a woman and Orson Welles as Mr. Potter).

I could go on for pages and hours, but there's no need. This is one of those rich movies that you can watch over and over again, and chances are you have. If you haven't, you need to. You'll draw your own conclusions, which, hopefully, will go beyond my impressions after having watched this for the first time, but not the last.

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