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It’s a Wonderful Life

December 21, 2015

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Director: Frank Capra
Actors: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore

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Synopsis: George Bailey (James Stewart), a selfless man who has given everything to his smalltown community, is on the cusp of committing suicide until a guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), intervenes to convince George of his worth.

Review: Honest confession to make here: It’s a Wonderful Life is a cinematic fable I’ve never fully understood or ‘got’. We are being asked to valorise Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey all along because of his smalltown thrift, his sense of community, his emblematic status as the little man who has made good of himself; however all that ruins his life and forces him to consider committing suicide are the corrosive qualities of commerce and money – yet ironically, it’s only in the acquisition of money and the community subjugating their own savings and needs for George, that his “rebirth” can be complete.

Another issue I have with It’s a Wonderful Life is that it would have worked much better with the narrative logic of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – a story whose sentiment is very similar. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the ‘now’ part of the story and sketching in of George’s life is far too long, soapy and episodic, the ghostly visitation comes ever so late and doesn’t have enough time to extract the necessary bitter catharsis, unlike in “A Christmas Carol” where the lessons of the night-time fantasies form the moral centrepiece of the story.

To cut Frank Capra some slack, the film works best as a buoyant microcosm of smalltown American values: it has a real vibrancy as Capra’s roving camera tracks the giddy Bailey to all his ‘stakes’ around town. That said, I can only imagine how much more exacting this story might have been in the hands of an Orson Welles or a Billy Wilder. (December 2015)

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