It’s a Wonderful Life

Year: 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
I must be getting old. A black and white movie by virtue of its age has always been a) a curiosity and b) daggy to me, and I never thought I'd be affected by one like this. Particularly since I knew Capra's reputation before seeing it, and (after seeing how modern day directors and filmmakers emulate his distinctive style and settings) expected a steaming pile of all-American schmaltz.

Also this was made in the early postwar years - the era when that sort of apple pie American kitsch was the actual landscape and not a historical relic of a period all ready for potshots of sarcasm.

George Bailey (James Stewart) is a loser who puts up with a string of (seemingly) bad luck throughout his life. All he wants to do is go to college and travel the world. Fate continually deals its hand, and George ends up middle aged, married with children, running his father's family-owned bank and with no further prospects, passed over in life time and again while the adventures and happiness he sought go to others around him.

The film takes a long time to set up the basic premise, and when too many things pile up on Bailey, Stewart gives the performance of a considerable career when he goes to the bar and fights back tears of frustration at his plight.

Despite the ensuing fantasy, there has rarely been a more realistic portrayal of someone's life, even today. Sent from heaven to save George from his own despair, angel Clarence (Travers) takes George on a tour around town among his friends and family - although in this history of Bedford Falls, George himself has never been born.

The basis for alternate reality plots in movies for the next half century in sci fi and adventure, we see the family business overrun by the cruel Mr Potter (the template for cruel, old rich men hell bent on money and power ever since), his brother dead at childhood, his mother a fearsome spinster, his house a run down hulk, and his wife terrified of his insane appearance.

You can feel desperation and fear seep into George's bones, and again Stewart's acting stands up to 50 years of scrutiny. When Clarence returns him to the real Bedford Falls and he rejoins his family, the quintessential movie happy ending occurs. Even though Hollywood still loves the happy ending, they usually make you gag nowadays. And this one would do so if it were in a modern movie.

But something about the strength of Stewart's performance and Capra's direction make you feel what George Bailey feels like the filmmakers alive today can only try to. You feel every shred of George's despair, then terror and desperation, then relief and love as his friends and neighbours gather around to save the bank.

The setup of angels coming to Earth to save a desperate man is pretty ridiculous, but the strength of the storytelling almost makes it unimportant, and it's the emotion George takes you through that matters.

A true and timeless classic.

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