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  It's a Wonderful Life Hell On Earth And Goodwill To All Men
Year: 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Stars: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Frank Albertson, Virginia Patton, Charles Williams, Sarah Edwards
Genre: Drama, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  10 (from 2 votes)
Review: There's a lot of praying tonight in the small New York state town of Bedford Falls, and one name keeps getting mentioned: George Bailey (James Stewart). Up in heaven, the celestial powers that be take note and ponder their next move - could it be time for an intervention? How about they send one of their angels down to the town to see if he can assist, how about Clarence (Henry Travers), who still doesn't have his wings after around two hundred years of trying? But before his mission, he has homework to do, and is instructed to take a look into the recent past, for without understanding what has brought George to the brink of abject despair, Clarence cannot help. George, you see, always wanted to leave Bedford Falls and see the world, but the best laid plans...

Once the Second World War was over there was a subgenre of drama and comedy that emerged reflecting the interest in what happened on the other side, as people were seeking reassurance those departed souls were going to be looked after by a higher power. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in Britain offered up the definitive, immediately postwar statement on these concerns with A Matter of Life and Death, but Frank Capra's masterpiece It's a Wonderful Life wanted to take in an entire life from childhood to the potential demise and make sure that individual didn't feel his whole existence had been in vain, something that all too many of those left after the global conflict found dear to their hearts, they wished the loved ones they had lost had died for a better world, after all.

However, as it turned out, audiences didn't wish to hear that from Capra, not when The Best Years of Our Lives was released the week before this and quickly became one of 1946's major blockbusters, detailing hope for the future among the returning troops and their families; George Bailiey never even fought in battle, he stayed at home thanks to deafness in one ear. But his brother Harry (Todd Karns) was a war hero, saving an entire ship, and he wouldn't have been around if George hadn't saved him from the frozen lake accident that cost him half his hearing, and there lay the crux of Capra's film, which stated that no matter how insignificant you think you are, we are all in this together and each play a part. Which is all very well if you are a decent chap like George (in one of the great Hollywood casts, Stewart was quite brilliant), but not so beneficial if you are, say, a certain millionaire called Potter (Lionel Barrymore).

Potter was the film's villain, and he is frightening for how persuasive he can be. It is he who wants to close down the Savings and Loan company set up by George's late father, and he is the reason our hero cannot leave, since if he were to go Potter would be able to take over the whole county and run it into the ground for the sake of increasing his already substantial fortune. At every turn when Bailey tries to leave, to get somewhere in the world, there is his nemesis Potter, dragging him back, which might have been another reason It's a Wonderful Life didn't catch on with the public at first: it's one of the most miserable films ever made. It's not simply sad, it's desperate, it's tragic, as we watch one kind man slowly driven to suicide - at Christmas, too! Nowadays it is well known Capra had a happy ending for George, but that tends to downplay just how effective this is at punishing its protagonist.

And simply because he dares to dream. George wants to make the world a better place, nothing wrong with that, yet the entire story up until the last five minutes demonstrates what toll that can take, idealism not being enough. To be a success in this arena you must have the ruthlessness of a Potter, that willingness to treat people like dirt and tread on them accordingly for your own self-satisfaction. Potter isn't just a shrewd businessman, he actively relishes ruining lives, it's what gives him his power, and there's such a dark heart to his machinations and a society that allows him to get away with it - and possibly continue doing so after the tale of the movie ends - that it's only the overwhelming sweetness and generosity of that finale that offers a beacon of hope to Bedford Falls and its residents. We have seen how bad things will get if Potter gets his way.

The characters around George define him, just as he discovers he has defined them, none more so than his wife Mary (Donna Reed in her finest role) who has loved him since they were children and finally catches him in a curious scene which seems like it's going to be played for comedy, except George won't play ball until he admits he loves her, a confession that has to be practically torn out of him. Mary represents what was worth winning the war for, and brings out the best in her husband even as he tries to deny it, but he is propping up others such as his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) whose fuzzy-headedness with a bank payment proves George's undoing. These people are bundles of flaws and dreams, and too often the former outweighs the latter, which brings the film's most ingenious element: Clarence granting George's wish to never have been born. The consequences? Without one good man's precarious position, the whole house of cards tumbles and Bedford Falls becomes Hell. An unforgettable warning, moving but not as sentimental as its reputation. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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