We all seemed to hate taking our medicine as children, didn’t we? It seems like this trend of resisting certain films – only to adore them when they’re given a chance – is a notable quirk of mine. But in terms of boosting personal morale, which has honestly been a bit low for me lately, maybe another visit to Bedford Falls is exactly what I need. It is ironic that a movie I used to hate watching as a kid every year now is easily my favorite of all time. Thanks for being persistent until I got its message, Dad, and Happy Birthday. This one’s for you.
DAY 12: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
I don’t even know how to review this film, or how this is going to read. So maybe I should just talk freely about it instead…Put bluntly, I have never seen a film that is so time-specific and yet so timeless at the same time. It is fitting that it begins with a series of prayers that go up on Christmas Eve 1946, in the little town of Bedford Falls, New York. In that particular moment, a man named George Bailey (James Stewart) is described to God by others as selfless, someone who some people owe everything to, someone adored by his wife and at least one kid…and yet, as we pan up to an image of blinking stars (one meant to be God, one Joseph…interesting metaphor, to say the least), they realize that Mr. Bailey is considering suicide. So they bring in a angel named Clarence, a simpleton but with the “heart of a child” (guess which strength is most cherished), trying to earn his wings. And in order to prepare Clarence, Joseph and God narrate George’s life for him…and in the process, we learn why he can be simultaneously so loved and yet so miserable.
I could give you every event that occurs in these flashbacks, but it would be a moot point. The appeal of this story is not merely in the sequence of events but in the details, in terms of the wonderfully varied characters and the little motifs that are, shall we say, “Hee-Hawed” into each scene. It makes them relatable and really helps you believe that these people have lived and laughed with each other for decades; in other words, you find genuine friendship developing on screen…But put bluntly, we find out that George has always had a longing for exploration but a sense of selflessness that is greater. He notices that his father’s work at the Bailey Building and Loan Association is small in one sense, but great as well because it is managed independently of miserable slumlord and financial titan Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). And on repeated occasions, from tragedy to financial crisis, he repeatedly has to step up as the noble-hearted adversary to provide a well-intentioned place for people to take out loans and earn savings for their families. Some could argue that Bailey is a human model of communism and Potter capitalism, but it seems to be more of a basic difference – between, respectively, a man who sees money as a means to greater ends and someone who wants it for its own sake – and Stewart and Barrymore play off each other perfectly in this respect, each reflecting the contrasting effects (on the soul, more than anything) of sacrificing one goal for the other. Both of their efforts are top-notch, seeming simultaneously particular in their focus and universal in their ability to be understood, and you can either root for or despise them all the more for it.
And indeed, sacrifice is a central point here. Despite Bailey’s efforts showing notable impact on Bedford Falls and his blossomed relationship with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) – a woman, in all honesty, much more attractive for her wholesome assertiveness than most actresses today – he continually needs to give up every opportunity to leave his town (even for vacations or honeymoons) to keep everyone else afloat. And every time he hears about his brother and friends in their noble adventures and endeavors, you can see how much it pains Bailey to hear about it. Any sort of shortcoming in makeup or clothing (because the film does span several decades) is more than compensated by the incredible use of body language by every member of the cast, especially in James Stewart as he reveals increasing bitterness and sense of being increasingly “trapped” in every subsequent scene. He knows that he could leave at any time he wants, and no one would fairly blame him for it…which makes it all the more heartbreaking when a mere slip of the mind threatens to throw it all away in one day. Ergo, the numerous prayers by family (he has four kids, by the way) and friend alike, and the way such heartbreak is displayed ranks right up there with Shawshank.
The direction by Frank Capra in these scenes is notably remarkable, because not a single line, camera close-up or visual detail is wasted. The fact that he made it specifically for black-and-white, and it STILL holds up even when colorized, shows how meticulous each shot is. Every action Bailey makes, for better or for worse (mostly better, though), has a direct impact somewhere later in the screenplay and serves to knock him down to his final rung before he is lifted up…through the appearance of Clarence that snowy night (and by the way, for a simple-minded angel, he is surprisingly competent in his job). To note one particular example, it is pointed out that Clarence (wonderfully performed, pure heart and all, by Henry Travers) is reading the book “Tom Sawyer”, which I did not always understand the reasoning behind. As it turns out, there is a scene where Mr. Sawyer fakes his own death, in order to find out how those around him would react at his funeral. A brilliant little clue for those not sure how God will tell his angel-in-training to handle George’s lack of self-worth.
About 75 percent of the film is built up to maybe 15-20 minutes of us seeing just how different the world (even beyond Bedford Falls, in some instances) would be without Mr. Bailey existing. Think “The Five People You Meet In Heaven”, except much less preachy. Needless to say, audiences are surprised…and yet not surprised…by how much worse things would be without him, and Potter is demonstratively proven wrong in his claims about the value of Bailey’s life. Again, the immaculate set design and perfectly-displayed nuances by the cast make the difference in this alternate universe all the more striking. This is truly character acting at its absolute best, and if you are not at least sniffling a little bit once George Bailey learns his lesson, you have a heart as granite-hard as Mr. Potter’s. OK, maybe it will come across a little too sentimental or sappy for some people, but its impact remains profound.
It shouldn’t come across as too surprising that this film absolutely bombed when first released, despite its five Academy Award nominations, only to be appreciated following its airing on TV a few decades later. Its message is, in all honesty, in striking contrast, to a numbers of the brutal, tragically flaunted ideas put forth in society back then (or even today, for that matter). But maybe that is why it is needed. Whether it is due to feeling unappreciated at work, overcoming a mistake, or simply feeling insignificant in an ever-shrinking global society, it is very tempting to focus primarily on building up yourself – because after all, if you don’t promote yourself, who else will? But while standing up for your dignity is all well and good, it is nice to be reminded that your acts of decency are cherished more than you know and probably make more of a difference than you can realize. The sentiment may be corny, but putting the previous question another way, if you don’t promote goodwill, why the hell not?
I absolutely cherish everything about this movie, and not least because it reminds me why I admire my father so much. Growing up, he NEVER told me (despite my curiosity) how much he made as a lawyer, preferring to say he made “Enough” – enough to provide for us, enough to give back to charity, and enough to assume all his responsibilities. I see a good deal of George Bailey in him, and maybe that is the best compliment I can give him. But maybe by watching this film regularly – with its carefully written script, fantastic pace and buildup, and characters that every everyman can relate too (I haven’t even begun to describe them all adequately) – maybe I can enjoy the feeling of being truly “rich”, too.
[Overall Score: 10/10]
TOMORROW (DAY 13): GROUNDHOG DAY