Frank Capra’s iconic Christmas masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a film about celebrating life. Released in 1946 and based on the short story ‘The Greatest Gift’ by Phillip Van Doren Stern it is a film that has captured the hearts of many for its cinematic charm and poignancy.
George Baily (James Stewart) is a small town man who one snowy night debates suicide, despite his life being filled with four children, a childhood sweetheart wife Mary (Donna Reed) and countless friends and family. With the help of Clarence the angel (Henry Travers) he is shown what his life would have been like, if he had not been born. It’s haunting to watch, and done in a way that seems classy and sophisticated beyond measure. Perhaps this is what helps it feature regularly in the top 100 films ever made, and certainly at the top of Christmas film’s.
I associate James Stewart as Alfred Hitchcock’s sidekick in Hollywood, so when I first watched It’s a Wonderful Life, I was in awe at the performance he gave. Not only was it meaningful and cleaver, it was emotive. It has often been considered that this was his performance of lifetime, after watching Vertigo (1958) I could argue with this, but I would very much so rank this performance second. The performance of all the other cast members, hold the grace that classic Hollywood projected, they are honest and raw which aids the narrative of the film to a pattern of loveable scenes. Such a scene like the school dance has been interpreted by many other films, one example being Grease (1978) the scene involves teenagers Mary and George dancing the Charleston, when two pranksters open the swimming pool which is underneath the gym floor. Brilliantly they fall in, still dancing in the water, I love this scene as it’s so vibrant and alive for the films later juxtapositions. The narrative of the film generally follows a basic story line, George has a life that’s wonderful, but it isn’t what he wanted as a child growing up, he wanted to explore the world and instead he has a world in the town of ‘Bedford Falls’. The set of Bedford Falls was built entirely using 75 shops, and a residential area on an existing set. The scale of this production is extensive, there were 40 trees planted before the production that are shown in the ending scene where George runs through the town in a famous tracking shot.
You could consider Charles Dickens, a Christmas Carol a parallel to the films narrative, with Clarence showing George what his life is like without him being born. Film historian James Berardinelli commented on this in 1977. Clarence is an angel that has waited 200 years to get his wings, there is a great scene where he is drying off after being in the river with George, and telling everyone in the room about his life in Heaven. It’s quite comical and he goes on to say ‘I told you, I’m your guardian angel’ to George in a way that makes you believe it too. The critical reception of the film has always been good. Time magazine stated in 1946 after the films premiere in New York, that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life really is a wonderful film’. The New York Times at the realise of the film also praised the actors of the film, but went on to say ‘it alludes the concept of life’. In modern times the film is still getting shown in cinemas every Christmas, and its racked up ratings of 8.9 on IMDb and a respected Robert Edger rating of 4/4 stars. Personally I think the film is brilliant, it deserves all the attention it is still getting and more. The film was also nominated for six Oscars, only wining the technical achievement award for the artificial chemical snow made for the film.
Most films that have had a huge impact on cinema will have a good soundtrack to go with it. A soundtrack is one of the most important aspects of a film it can change the mood of the scene or the entire film. The soundtrack to It’s a Wonderful Life, was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, it’s a perfect mix of orchestral with the added songs of ‘Buffalo Girl’ and of course the famous ending with ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Buffalo Girl is a reoccurring song throughout the two hour film for Mary and George, it’s the song they sang together as teenagers and later on when they are married it is continually played in their house. The music is charming for the feature, it brings around an air of sophistication and at the same time innocence.
The script was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, there are some amazing lines in the film, most of them coming from Clarence, one Iine in particular is ‘Strange isn’t it? How each man’s life touches so many other lives?’ It’s an emotive line for the film and is perhaps the line from the script that sums up the film. George Bailys life has touched so many, and until the end of the film, he struggles to see that. The cinematography by Joseph Walker is also fantastic for its tracking shots and natural movement making the camera feel like your eyes are in the scenes. My favourite shot is at the end where George is running back to his home and family after realising his life is wonderful, the shot is taken tracking backwards as he runs shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ at everyone. The shot just makes you smile, it achieves what Frank Capra wanted to do with the portrayal of George.
I can only imagine where this film will be in 50 years, I hope it’s still as emotive and wonderful as I feel it is today, almost 80 years after its realise. And if the ending doesn’t bring a smile to your face, no film can.