Thursday, January 24, 2013
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
(December 1946, U.S.)
Sometimes timing and circumstances really give me a mighty good kick in the ass! I tried so damn hard to properly time my movie viewing just right so that I could possibly post what is considered the greatest Christmas film of all time on December 24th of last year. Forgive me, readers, for I am exactly one month late! You see...this is what happens when you let a Jewish person review your Christmas films for you (ha, ha, ha!)!
Frank Capra's (hey, TWO Frank Capra films in a row on this blog!) most popular, most endearing film is a prime example of how time can ultimately be very kind to any film. When IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE first premiered in 1946, it was received with either dismissed or negative reviews and performed very poorly at the box office. Then somewhere over the course of several decades, the film fell into the public domain (look up what that means) and was continuously broadcasted on hundreds of local television stations during the Christmas seasons. Today, it's the only black and white film traditionally broadcasted on one of the three major networks (NBC) on Christmas Eve and the traditional film that this particular Jew still enjoys watching on that very same night.
Just how IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE became such a quintessential Christmas film alongside such a dominating story as Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is beyond me because the entire subject of Christmas and its joys and spirits is hardly a real subject of the film until the last thrity minutes or so when our hero George Bailey (played by the legendary James Stewart) has thoughts of imminent suicide on Christmas Eve and brings about the intervention of his mysterious guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (played by Henry Travers) who shows George all the lives he's touched and how brutally different life in his community would be had he never been born. Time is, indeed, a very funny thing.
If you've never actually seen this film before, you may actually wonder why it's actually called IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE when through most of the entire story, George Baily's life seems far from wonderful. Let's face it, man, throughout most of the film, his life really sucks!! This is a man who has continuously, unintentionally and unfairly given up his own great dreams and aspirations in order to help and improve the lives of others in his hometown of Bedford Falls. This is a man who's inherited a nickel and dime savings and loan business he never wanted, lives in a broken down house he never cared for, drives a piece of junk jalopy and whose only victory in life seems to come from being the only one in the entire community who will stand up to slumlord, old man Henry Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore). By the time George has reached the final limit of his existence, he's $8,000 in debt (through his uncle's carelessness!) and wanted by the authorities. Yes, my friends, it almost seems as if suicide on Christmas Eve is the only viable solution for poor George Bailey.
With regard to the famous sequence of George seeing life around him had he not been born, the reality is that it's quite an intense and frightening sequence; one that could have easily been a frightening episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE years later. Under this bizarre visual glimpse, life in Bedford Falls is not just a community minus one man, but one that has become completely unglued and under the complete domination of old man Potter (known as Pottersville, in this scenario). The people appear to live without any moral decency or values whatsoever and all those who were once dear to George are now complete strangers, particularly the wife he loves Mary (played by Donna Reed). Watch carefully the wide-eyed, enraged reaction James Stewart takes on upon witnessing the decay around him and tell me if this seems like any happy-go-lucky Christmas film to you! Definitely no, not 'till the very end, anyway, when things return to the way they should be and George learns the harsh and valuable (and cliche) lesson of embracing and cherishing all that he has in his life, even if it's far from perfect.
(Admitedly, sometimes I need that same occassional kick in the ass to remind myself of life's same lessons!)
When the end finally does come and all is happy and beautiful in the life of George Bailey and in the town of Bedford Falls and we hear his little girl Zuzu tell her daddy that every time a bell rings, it means an angel just got his wings, even this hard-boiled cynic (ME!) can't help but put a great big smile on his face and finally understand why IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is deservedly the greatest Christmas film he's ever seen!
Oh, one final thing - the scene at the high school dance and the swimming pool underneath. Look very carefully and the freckleface boy who's been cast aside by George when he insists on dancing with Mary. That's Carl Switzer, better known as "Alfalfa" from "Our Gang" or "The Little Rascals". Look it up if you have no idea what I'm talking about.
Favorite line or dialogue:
George Bailey (on Mary being caught naked in the bushes) "This is a very interesting situation!"
Mary Hatch: "Please give me my robe."
George: "A man doesn't get in a situation like this every day."
Mary: "I'd like to have my robe."
George Bailey: "Not in Bedford Falls anyway."
Mary: "Ouch! Oh!"
Mary: "George Bailey!"
George: "Inspires a little thought."
Mary: "Give me my robe."
George: "I've read about things like this."
Mary: "Shame on you! I'm going to tell your mother on you."
George: "Well, my mother is way up on the corner."
Mary: "I'll call the police!"
George: "Well, they're all the way downtown. They'd be on my side."
Mary: "Then I'll scream!"
George Bailey: "Maybe I can sell tickets."