Director: Frank Capra. Liberty Films/RKO (U).
Producer: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra.
Camera: Joseph Biroc, Joseph Walker, Victor Milner.
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin.
Sets: Jack Okey.
James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Graham, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson.
George Bailey (Stewart) is a nice, compassionate guy. But one Christmas, the stresses of work and life get the better of him and he considers committing suicide. An angel-in-training (Travers), needing to gain his ‘wings’, visits him and shows him how poor life would have been for his family and local community if he had never existed.
Boo! Hiss! To the critic who dares to give this perennial American film favourite anything less than 5/5. But, in all honesty, you would have to be American to completely ‘get’ the whimsical schmaltz that pervades every frame of Capra’s lovingly remembered movie, loosely inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Not that it was so lovingly received at the time. It’s a Wonderful Life only broke even at the box office, though it’s high production costs probably added to it’s financial woes. Confidence in Capra as a director of high quality, populist, star-studded morality tales was so shaken after this he directed only five more films.
Whether you find the sweetness of the finished product endearingly nostalgic or pancreas-busting depends on one’s viewpoint, but there is enough subversion within the storyline to warm the cockles of any humbugs heart.
The downbeat opening, with Stewart’s stress-levels palpably revealed on the screen in all their nervous-eyed twitchiness, are quite stark, especially when compared with the almost evangelically upbeat tone that builds as the film progresses.
There are further impressively ‘negative’ performances from Graham as the peroxide blonde town tramp and Barrymore in perhaps his most remembered (probably not so fondly) as Potter, the true spirit of American miserliness, the town’s fat cat determined to take over and close down Stewart’s company. Barrymore read Dickens’ Carol on the radio and that lead to his casting in this film.
There’s no denying Capra’s skill in making this kind of halyconic, praise be to the family and man film. The result is seductive, perfectly paced, beautifully filmed and, as befits the title, full of wonderful moments. But from a modern sociological, psychologically-slanted perspective it is difficult to relate to his almost simplistic reasoning that a dutiful, placid wife and cute kids decorating the Christmas tree are all that a man needs to sort himself out. Extrapolating this further, society can’t be righted simply by people being nicer to each other, wonderful an idea that is in itself. It’s only as the film progresses that this vein of hyper-jingoism becomes more pronounced – the perfect antidote to festive season arguments at home perhaps, but ultimately aggravating.