‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is still wonderful

Hollywood Soapbox logoThere’s a reason that It’s a Wonderful Life is a beloved holiday classic. Although not strictly a Christmas movie, the James Stewart feature has a wholesomeness and enjoyment that seems to work well in the month of December. Much like other Frank Capra-directed movies, It’s a Wonderful Life feels like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life … at least at first. And then we come to realize that the white picket fences and neatly trimmed hedges often feel like barriers to success and diversions to fulfillment in life. Quaint, small-town America can be suffocating for those who don’t exactly fit in. Beneath all the holiday cheer, the movie is actually quite dark, an exercise in self-relfection and the power of redemption.

Stewart plays George Bailey, a character we come to know in both childhood, adolescence and adulthood. He’s a genuinely good man who has friendly relationships with many people around town. His memories of meeting his wife are fond ones, and although he has aspirations of traveling one day, he has accepted the responsibility of the family business. A turn of events begins to crack Bailey’s sepia-toned image of life. The evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) has already taken over much of the local neighborhood, and now the dictatorial landowner wants a piece of Bailey’s banking and loan business. At first, Bailey opposes Potter’s efforts, but after tens of thousands of dollars go missing on Christmas eve and the family business is about to go belly up, negativity and pain seep into the local landscape.

Taking a page from Charles Dickens, Capra has the down-and-out main character face a series of imagined realities via an angel on the quest to earn his wings. Bailey is able to see what the town’s life would be like without his presence. This ability to see the effect of one’s absence offers a glimpse into the power of self-worth. Bailey doesn’t understand his purpose in life, so much so that he almost commits suicide. The angel’s mission is to stop the pain and offer some therapeutic imagery.

Stewart is marvelous in the role, letting the audience believe in both his delight and despair. The Rocky Mountains have no contest against the emotions that come across Stewart’s recognizable face. He was an actor fully immersed in his craft, using voice, movement, facial expressions and charming smiles to carve out memorable characters. George Bailey is perhaps his finest creation.

The supporting actors, including Donna Reed as Bailey’s love interest, are equally stellar. There’s no weak point in the entire film. From the voiceover to the “every time a bell rings” ending, it’s quite easy to be taken over by the sentimentality of It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m not ashamed to say that it’s one of the few movies that almost always produces tears in my eyes. Seeing Bailey hit the lowest of lows and then turn his life around is a cinematic experience everyone should enjoy at least once.

Capra, who directed the film and wrote the screenplay with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, created an iconic movie that uses many cliches and borrows from other similarly plotted tales. But everything is excused because It’s a Wonderful Life seems worthy of following the rulebook written by previous masters. It’s not a simple retread of a Dickensian tale. This movie, some 70 years after its original release, feels alive and overflowing with genuine positivity. There’s no manufactured goodness. It’s a Wonderful Life is just good, warm, solid. Frame it like a Norman Rockwell print; this one is a keeper.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • It’s a Wonderful Life

  • 1946

  • Directed by Frank Capra

  • Written by Capra, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett

  • Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore

  • Running time: 130 minutes

  • Rated PG for thematic elements, smoking and some violence

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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