#25: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

When and how did I watch this?

April 17th, 2017, on a random site.

Had I seen this film already?

Yep.

What did I know about the movie before watching it?

I’m a huge Jimmy Stewart fan, and even more so after watching the films on this list.  Hitchcock had sort of a love affair with casting Stewart in his movies, and so did Capra, attesting to the actor’s flexibility. It’s A Wonderful Life is a showcase of his best persona: the lovable everyman who overcomes the odds and wins the hearts of the community.  This is precisely the plot in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but this one is far better.  The details of the film were foggy before this viewing.

What do I know about it now?

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the tale told in It’s a Wonderful Life.  George Bailey (Stweart) is a local hero, having saved his brother from drowning and freezing as a kid, then saving another life by keeping his sorrowful employer from unintentionally delivering poison to a sick child, eventually becoming a stalwart in his community after deferring his own plans to “make it,” earning a reputation as the only one in town with the guts to stand up to the community magnate Mr. Potter (Barrymore). After clawing his way onto equal ground with Potter, George finally has the upper hand when his uncle inadvertently misplaces $8,000, which ironically ends up in the possession of Potter.  Bailey desires to end his own life, and the real story begins here as a guardian angel gives him a glimpse of what it would have been like had he never been born. The alternate reality is akin to Biff’s Pleasure Paradise in Back to the Future II, with brothels and casinos and rampant crime afoot; his brother is dead, his family doesn’t exist, and his friends are either downtrodden or corrupted. Realizing his error, he pleads for his life back. The conclusion is heartwarming and produces rivers of tears. It’s the ultimate feel-good movie, Capra’s masterpiece, and Stewart’s magnum opus. It’s a sound reminder that, despite how insignificant you feel, your life indeed matters.  The film takes a lot of extra-biblical liberties regarding the nature of God and angels, but it never takes the subject matter too seriously — the value of humanity is far weightier in this context.

What are some themes in the film?

Perseverance, family, value of life, bureaucracy, destiny/fate

Did this affect me personally?

I was bawling throughout the final scene. So, yes, it did.

Why is this ranked #25?

It’s a Christmastime favorite, but Capra and Stewart’s work has a lot to do with its renown. There are hundreds of films in this era that have similar sentimentality, but there is something raw about Stewart’s portrayal as Bailey that resonates with audiences. I read afterward that this was Stewart’s first film immediately following his service in World War II, whereas he was initially uncertain of his future in film. America should be grateful he didn’t quit.

Did my wife watch/like it?

It’s one of her favorites as well, but I think she was working on something throughout my viewing.

Would I watch it again?

Yes, please.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

If you’ve seen it, it’s probably a holiday favorite of yours as well.  If you haven’t, it’s possible you just have missed it, or you don’t like “old movies.” Both of these reasons are terrible errors.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

It’s a Wonderful Life squared off with The Best Years of Our Lives at the Academy Awards in 1946, and lost to it in four out of five nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.  This is by no means a snub — the latter is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.  Capra’s classic, however, earned a place in the hearts of America after becoming associated with Christmas, and comparatively the film generates more positive feelings than the other. Nonetheless, its greatness resounds through time, and I hope we never forget the story of George Bailey, because there is no juncture in our existence as humans when we don’t need to remember it.

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