Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: It's A Wonderful Life

"It's A Wonderful Life" **** (out of ****)

As I have been reviewing Christmas themed movies for the month of December, I've yet to review anything I think really displays the meaning of the Christmas spirit. Sure "Holiday Inn" and "March of the Wooden Soldiers" are pieces of harmless entertainment, which may serve as good family viewing, but, those movies don't offer a moral. "It's A Wonderful Life" is probably one of the greatest if not the best Christmas movie ever made.

I haven't reviewed anything yet on this blog by Frank Capra. But it has nothing to do with my feelings on his films. He's one of my favorite directors. To a lot of people I imagine they think of Capra and his films as sentimental hogwash. His films are too sappy. As a society we tend to look down upon films which are sentimental, melodramatic, emotional films. Why is that? What's wrong with a movie working purely on our emotions? What's wrong with a little sentimentality?

Capra's movies make us feel good about ourselves. They embody a true American "can do" attitude. They make us inspire to be better people. Does that sound like too much praise for Capra? Maybe you've never seen one of his movies before.

Of all of Mr. Capra's great films, which include "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town", "It Happened One Night", "Lady For A Day", "You Can't Take It With You" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington", "It's A Wonderful Life" remains my favorite. It is the quintessential Capra film because it represents everything Capra stood for. Capra himself even said this was his favorite among his own films.

"It's A Wonderful Life" seems to be one of those movies everyone has seen. Films buffs and casual movie fans all know the story. It plays on TV every Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I've never met someone who told me they never heard of it or have not seen it.

Still I'll explain what the movie is about. The film follows a young dreamer, George Bailey (James Stewart). Ever since he was a child George has wanted to travel all over the world. Like most young children he thought he could change the world. He wanted to leave his hometown of Bedford Fall and never look back. A man can't make much of himself in that town. George's plans were too big for the people of the town.

But George, like so many dreamers, never achieved those dreams. Something always interfered with his plans. When his father dies, it is George who must take over his father's building and loan business. George sends his younger brother, Harry (Todd Karns) to college, with the money that was originally intended for George. Harry, he figures will take over the business after he graduates. But Harry gets married, and his father-in-law offers him a job in his company. So George gets snubbed again.

Then Mary (Donna Reed) enters his life. It may be the only bright spot, even if it is slightly bittersweet. Meeting her, means he has to spend more time in Bedford Falls. Now he is a married man and must settle down. Still, he loves her. They have known each other since children. When even then Mary loved George.

But George has hit rock bottom. His business partner and uncle (Thomas Mitchell) has lost $8,000, which was suppose to be payment to the bank. Without it George will have to close the business and may have to go to jail. The only man he can turn to is a man his family has been doing business with for years, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Mr. Potter doesn't like the Bailey family. He doesn't understand their optimism and wanting to help the less fortunate. They make bad businessmen he feels. Naturally Mr. Potter refuses to help George.

When that happens, George no longer wants to live, and when God hears that an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent to help George discover the meaning of life and his own importance by showing him what life would be like if he were never born.

I wonder if Ingmar Bergman was influenced by this movie when he made one of his many masterpieces "The Seventh Seal", where Death meets a man, and through their encounter, he too learns about the meaning of life and God's existence. Of course Bergman's film is more bleak in its approach, but the message is almost the same.

The most amazing thing about "It's A Wonderful Life" is Stewart's performance. We see ourselves in him. At one time we too thought we could change the world. We thought anything was possible. We wanted to explore the world over. But something called "life" interfered. Dreams crumbled. Hope faded away. We settled down got married had children and found out what a mortgage is. Then you start to hope your children will accomplish all those things you never did and the vicious cycle of life continues.

Stewart is able to show all these dimensions in his performance. We can see the sorrow and despair on his face. We see how life has simply become too much for him to deal with. When he yells at his children we understand him. We know he loves his children but the world is spinning out of control. When that happens we take our anger out on anyone next to us. Even in those moments when George isn't shown in the best light, Stewart is able to make us relate to the character. There is something universal about it.

It has been said Stewart had that "every man" appeal to him. And he and Capra made many films to help enforce that idea whether it was "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" or this film.

In the end "It's A Wonderful Life" teaches us the importance of family. Being around loved ones. Learning to treat others as you would want to be treated. Every life has value. No man is a failure as long as he has friends and family. And that is what the Christmas spirit is suppose to be about. Not Santa Claus, not a talking snowman or flying reindeer. Sorry kids! This time of year should be a reflection on our own lives and helping others.

It still amazes me "It's A Wonderful Life" flopped at the box-office and won not a single award at the Academy Awards ceremony that year. Though in fairness it lost to some good competition, William Wyler's "The Best Years Of Our Lives" (which is also included in my "Masterpiece Film Series"). But, time is the ultimate judge of which films are classics. As great as "The Best Years..ect" is, I'm willing to bet more people have seen "It's A Wonderful Life" than "The Best Years". Hopefully it will be a film that will always be around. It's values and message is one should we always remind ourselves of. That's why it's one of the masterpieces of cinema.