It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Review by Karen Krizanovich @Krizanovich

Directed by

Frank Capra

Starring

Donna Reed James Stewart Lionel Barrymore

Anticipation.

What makes this a classic? Let’s find out!

Enjoyment.

Sure it’s old fashioned, but it’s also eternally charming and fun. Where else could a dance floor split and reveal a swimming pool?

In Retrospect.

I only wish I’d seen it first on the big screen.

Frank Capra’s festive classic returns to the big screen this Christmas – and it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

The story of how It’s a Wonderful Life became a holiday staple is steeped in mystery, error and bad luck. The first film director Frank Capra made after returning from service in World War Two, it was always intended to be extraordinary. Jimmy Stewart headlines a story of a man who abandons his own hopes and dreams to help others, and whose heart is broken to the point of suicide in the process.

Part of the myth surrounding the film lies in the fact that it was a commercial failure upon its release. Following the prewar success of It Happened One NightMr Smith Goes to Washington and others, expectation was high that Capra would deliver again. Philip Van Stern’s Dickensian novel ‘The Greatest Gift’, a tale that began life as a Christmas card, was deemed the ideal source material, but even after a script polish by the great Dorothy Parker, It’s a Wonderful Life was not the box office smash RKO Pictures had hoped. Still, Variety enthused in 1946 that the film was a, “reminder that, essentially, the screen best offers unselfconscious, forthright entertainment.” There was even a mention of the film’s innovative simulation of snow.

The mystery of Jimmy Stewart’s feverish performance, meanwhile, might be linked back to his wartime service. Fresh back from active duty, Stewart had been grounded in 1945 from flying missions due to what would now be diagnosed as PTSD. After returning to his parents’ Pennsylvania home for brief respite, he eventually headed back to Hollywood. Holing up with fellow soldier Henry Fonda, Stewart found few opportunities outside of wartime hero roles that turned his stomach.

The war had not only taken a toll on Stewart’s boyish looks, but his digestion and hearing too. In hindsight, the distraught character of George Bailey is perfect for Stewart, who was able to (perhaps subconsciously) tap into his own sense of postwar rage, hysteria and alienation. Playing a man who sees no point in living, Stewart gives a performance that audiences implicitly understood at the time, and which continues to resonate today.

Yet, Stewart walked out of an initial meeting between his agent and Capra. The actor wanted to do a comedy, not tell another story of tragedy and destruction. But, as many actors returning from the war were finding, pickings were slim. According to Stewart’s co-star Donna Reed, the set was a tense, unhappy place. Stewart was having second thoughts when Lionel Barrymore reportedly asked him if he thought it was better to drop bombs on people than to entertain them. That helped Stewart accept the role as worthwhile.

A clerical error meant the film’s rights were not renewed in 1974, leaving it in the public domain. For almost two decades, American TV networks showed the film ad nauseam (I distinctly remember my mother telling me one year to “turn off that old crap”). There were days when the film was playing on every station, providing an It’s a Wonderful Life marathon whether viewers wanted it or not. It became a seasonal favourite by default – a film that had something for everyone, and for every generation. As Capra famously observed, “The film has a life of its own now.”

While it may not be the first Christmas movie (that honour goes to 1898’s Santa Claus, a British short that was itself a technical landmark) It’s a Wonderful Life is the closest thing to a postwar American Dickens. Though Capra never quite returned to the golden days of the 1930s, this is considered by many to be one of the finest films ever made. Having personally taken the film for granted for decades, seeing it on the big screen made for a transformative experience. I saw Stewart’s hysteria, Reed’s joy and worry, the irritation of being a parent, but also the sensuality of wholesome smalltown America.

Gloria Grahame co-stars as the sassy Violet, wearing a floaty summer dress she claims is old and that she wears only, “when I don’t care how I look”. An interchange follows, concluded by Bert who says, “I’ve got to go home and see what the wife is doing.” There’s sex and death here, elation and depression, hope and despair. Potter may win in the end but, realistically, the characters live with that because they must. It’s their only choice. As for the film’s accolades, it was nominated for six Oscars and beaten by the wartime heroism of The Best Years of Our Lives in all categories but one: technical achievement for fake snow.

Published 14 Dec 2018

Tags: Frank Capra James Stewart

Anticipation.

What makes this a classic? Let’s find out!

Enjoyment.

Sure it’s old fashioned, but it’s also eternally charming and fun. Where else could a dance floor split and reveal a swimming pool?

In Retrospect.

I only wish I’d seen it first on the big screen.

Read More

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Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 comedy is the perfect film to get you in the festive spirit.

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