December 12, 2021
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Grade: 83/100

Director: Frank Capra
Stars: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore

What it's about. James Stewart is a young man who just wants to leave his humble home town and see the world. Instead, he ends up managing his late father's bank, because he comes to realized it is the only financial institution not under the control of greedy, grasping robber baron Lionel Barrymore.

Oh, it's not all bad for Stewart. True, he has to put up with his incompetent uncle, Thomas Mitchell, but he marries the finest girl in town, Donna Reed, and is beloved by everyone, with the exception of the hissible Barrymore.

But after blundering Mitchell loses an 8K deposit, the world suddenly comes crashing down for James Stewart. He even contemplates suicide. Henry Travers shows up just in time as a kindly angel to demonstrate to Stewart how bleak the world would have been without him, in time to wrap things up with a feel-good happy ending.

It is the 75th anniversary of Frank Capra's masterpiece, which makes it timely for retrospection. So much time has passed that the entire adult cast has passed away except for Virginia Patton, who plays Stewart's sister in law.

How others will see it. Director and producer Frank Capra failed to renew the copyright for It's a Wonderful Life. It lapsed into public domain by the mid-1970s, and television stations began to show it regularly every Christmas. At one time, it was the most celebrated Christmas movie, surpassing even the venerable Miracle on 34nd Street (1947), although in recent years it has been overtaken by A Christmas Story (1983) and even Die Hard.

It's a Wonderful Life was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Stewart). It lost in all categories to The Best Years of Our Lives, the biggest grossing film since Gone With the Wind and, remakable, a film superior to It's a Wonderful Life, although relatively few today under the age of 40 have seen it.

But, today at, It's a Wonderful Life has a huge 425K user votes. The user rating is a remarkable 8.6 out of 10. Perhaps they have streamed the movie on Amazon; if they did, they saw a colorized version with reprocessed sound, although the film's quality is undiminished. James Stewart once testified in Congress about his dislike for colorized films. He said that actors in a colorized film look like "painted Easter eggs." The technology has since improved.

The user reviews for It's a Wonderful Life are as gushing as one might expect. One writes, "each man's life touches so many others," which is indeed undeniable. It is also true that untold zillions of people could have been born that were never conceived to begin with, and perhaps the biggest difference would be that even more of the Amazon rain forest would have been cut down, had they existed.

How I felt about it. My first observation is that Uncle Billy is an idiot and should never have a job where he directly handles money. I would put a sandwich board sign on him that says "Bailey's Bank" and march him up and down the streets of Bedford Falls. The exercise would be good for him anyway.

My second observation is that this film is unusually well cast. The five leads (Stewart, Reed, Barrymore, Mitchell, and Travers) are all wonderful. Stewart's greatness as an actor isn't that apparent throughout his patented Aw Shucks delivery throughout most of the film, but when his character turns dark, he truly is impressive.

My third observation is, when are they going to make a film about George Bailey's brother Harry? Here is a wonder man who was second team All American, earned a Phi Beta Kappa key, shot down a dozen-plus Japanese Zeroes as they were about to level American ships, married the perfect girl and secured an industrialist father-in-law to give him a plum executive job.

Harry's slew of accomplishments, especially for such a minor character, always annoyed me about this movie, even though I understand why Capra piles them mountain high. It's all because George saved Harry's life when he was nine.

Of course, the real World War II war hero was James Stewart himself, who was drafted into the military as a private and was eventually promoted to Brigadier General. It's a Wonderful Life was the first movie he had made in five years, since his induction into service.

Frank Capra's tale of the triumph of the working class David over greedy capitalist Goliath is practically a trademark of his movies. Stewart had played a similar everyman hero in You Can't Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, taking over what Gary Cooper began in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Stewart as Bailey rails at the black-hearted Potter on several occasions, and the audience is expected to stand up and applaud every time.

Capra's prior efforts were not always successful, although I do like American Madness (1932). But here, it all works. One reason is that Capra had complete creative control, since he owned the production company, Liberty Films. Thus, Capra could toss the Frances Goodrich / Albert Hackett screenplay, select actors without studio interference, and build a colossal four-acre set to evoke Bedford Falls.

They say that It's a Wonderful Life is inspirational. We do make a difference. Maybe the world would have gotten along just fine without you or me. Maybe it would have been better off, as Beavis and Butt-Head find out in their Christmas special. But, maybe, your home town would have become Pottersville had you not been there to help that small child cross the street 40 years ago. Who knows?