By Thomas Drake
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946); Dir: Frank Capra; Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers; Wed. Dec. 21 8 p.m. at Earl Strand Smith Theatre; traditional TV screening on Christmas Eve on NBC (Channel 11) at 8 p.m.; Trailer here.
Short: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Medium: George Bailey is a man with big dreams and a big heart. As a youth he decides to set out for the big city and become an architect and explore the world. While he loves his family, he looks down with scorn on his small hometown, BedfordFalls. But on the day he is set to go out into the world, his father becomes ill. The problem is, George learns that the film’s villain, Mr. Potter (No Relation to Harry Potter of the Same Name), plans to take over the bank and remake the town in his dark image. George is forced to take up his father’s mantle and save the town, initially only for a little while, but as he puts roots and settles down, the years slog on. Until fate gives Potter a chance to destroy Bailey. Bailey is at the end of his rope and considers his life a total failure.
Heaven itself hears the prayers of the town and sends an incompetent angel in the form of Clarence to help out. Clarence gets the brilliant idea of showing George Bailey the world without him in it. Horrified, George repents of his wish for death and rushes back to the happy ending typical of Hollywood movies of the era.
George Bailey (James Stewart) at a low moment in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife Mary (Donna Reed) and children try to trim the tree and enjoy Christmas. Copyright: Paramont Pictures, 1945.
Maximum Verbosity: This is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s not every day that a movie can establish a new kind of story that is copied over and over again in many mediums. There might be a story that did this before IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but this Frank Capra-directed holiday classic certainly turned the idea of showing someone what the world would be like them on its head if it did. I’ve seen more television episodes and cartoons that show how critical a piece someone makes in the lives of others roughly based on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE than I can even remember. And I can remember a lot.
When the film originally came out, it didn’t really do so well. In fact, it might have been doomed to an ignoble death like so many otherwise excellent Hollywood films until someone discovered that it had ‘slipped through’ the copyright trap, and thus became exceedingly cheap for small television stations to run over and over again around Christmas. So it became an American favorite and a classic. Now the American Film Institute, on one of its many arbitrary lists, calls IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE one of the 100 best films ever made—and I’d agree with them on this one. Of course, that was not to last, as eventually the zaibatsus managed to loophole the loophole and now only NBC can show it (Dec. 24 at 8 p.m.).
In a rare holiday treat, the film itself, however, is going to be shown at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre, an art-deco former movie palace in Marietta. With all of the trouble iconic Atlanta film venues have been going through recently such as the Plaza up for sale; with the zaibatsus getting rid of their 35mm film collections; and even books themselves slowly going the way of the Kindle, supporting such grand old institutions as the Earl Smith is more important than ever. An artistic experience isn’t just about the performance, it’s who and where it is being performed. [Ed. note: this screening is not in 35mm, but we still think it's mighty special to see even a digital print at such a cool Retro venue, esp. if the kids have only seen it in TV.]
Bumbling angel Clarence (Henry Travers) startles George (Stewart) by showing up in a nightgown. Copyright Paramount Pictures 1945.
So why do I love this movie? Let me count the ways. Jimmy Stewart is the most awesome actor in all of Hollywood history, and given some of the people that have worked in film, that’s saying a lot. The man was humble and had a genuine all-American quality to him that I found fantastic. That combined with one of his [and Frank Capra's] other great seminal works, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, to me sums up what it means to be an American. He is the true Everyman hero, the one who stands up for what is right when all others demand that you surrender to the wrong. Indeed, if every man would be as Jimmy Stewart, then the very foundations of evil would be shaken from the world forever. Not that that’s going to happen.
Let’s talk Clarence (Henry Travers). Clarence is a delightful fuck-up. When one thinks Angel, one traditionally thinks Cherubim and a Flaming Sword guarding the Garden of Eden, not a bumbling old guy in a hat who doesn’t even have his wings yet. Of course, don’t underestimate old Clarence, because the old guy can turn visible or invisible at will and rewrites the very laws of reality to weave out George Bailey. If that’s what an angel without wings does, you can imagine how many power-up’s you’d need to take on a fully developed one. But his bumbling incompetence is why I like him. I like the idea that God, or at least his minions, are well meaning but not all powerful. But maybe that’s just me. It’s easier to accept the world the way it is if you think that.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE also is a great romance. Donna Reed is easy to lose in the crowd among all of the things that are going on in the film, but as a subplot, George Bailey’s courtship—both before and after they are married—is a true classic. She went on later to have her own highly successful sitcom, but seeing her in this is like all of those obscure ‘80s movies that have actors in them before they became truly famous. Like Kate Mulgrew in REMO WILLIAMS (1985).
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a wonderful romance, too, between George (Stewart) and Mary (Reed). Copyright Paramount Pictures 1945.
But I think above all, the philosophy of the film is why I love so much. Life isn’t about wealth. You can’t take it with you, and while it can certainly help in some circumstances, you can’t eat it and it won’t love you. “Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends.” I guess somehow when I heard that, it translated in my mind as, “The true measure of the worth of a human’s life is in the quality and strength of the relations he keeps.” And I’ve lived my life that way ever since. People matter. Friends matter. Family matters. And this movie is the quintessential guide to that.
It might be hokey. It might even have a healthy dose of sappy cheddar compared to the realities of corruption, malfeasance and dereliction we have today. The world needs more George Baileys, because God knows we’ve sure as hell got enough Mr. Potters running around with their derivatives and their credit default swaps and their vast indifference to the suffering of humanity. Our world has come to more resemble the dark mirror of George’s life, where people don’t give a shit about each other. But this is the Holiday season, damn it, and whatever your affiliation (Kwanza, Hannikua, Christmas, Festivus, X-mas), they are all about love and being greater than yourself. (Well…maybe not X-mas which is largely about buying as much as you can and trompling your neighbor in the process.)
Celebrate Christmas by living a bit of it each day of your life. And the best way to do that, is to be like George Bailey. Merry Christmas.