A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 299 – It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life – December 24th, 2010

How does one begin to review this movie? It is a quintessential classic about community and giving and sharing and family and desperation at a time of year when many people surely feel the same way. It’s certainly dated, and I find myself annoyed at it for what was acceptable at the time and is now more than distasteful. But it’s also timeless in its message and story and tone, so I can look past the dated stuff and focus on everything positive about the movie, and there is a lot of positive.

There was a time when this wasn’t a Christmas classic, but that was before I was old enough to really think about it. Now it’s one of the staples of my family. Something we can always put in around this time of year and leave running in the background even if we’re busy baking or wrapping presents or goofing off as we are wont to do. In fact, we watched this with my family this evening after Christmas Eve dinner and we spent much of the time talking and joking and looking up trivia about the movie and pointing out anachronisms and goofs and over-analyzing it and singing Buffalo Gals. I think we probably missed half the movie. I know I wasn’t watching the whole scene at the dance and only caught the tail end where George and Mary are dancing ever closer to the edge of the pool. And yet I can’t really tell where I came in, because I know the movie so well that I know how it all goes.

Do I have to describe it? This might well be the introduction of the concept of alternate universes for most people, or at least the root of other inspired works. After all, we watched a movie just last week that was clearly a take on this theme and I’ve seen it done in many more places. The final episodes of the Highlander tv series used this plot device, even. A man with a full life but also many regrets falls onto desperate times and wishes he’d never been born (thinking that everyone around him would be better off). With a little divine intervention he’s shown just how wrong he is when he sees the world as it would be without his existence. People are harsher, meaner, lost, dead, thoroughly changed in unthinkably sad ways. The world is worse off. It’s all about showing how one person can make a difference in the lives of others and not even know it.

In this, the classic version of the story, George Bailey is the main character. He’s lived his whole life in a small town and seen all of his friends leave and make big lives for themselves. He sacrifices and gives and works himself sick for the people in the town of Bedford Falls. He gives up a trip to Europe that he’d saved for. He gives up college. He gives up his honeymoon. He never gets to see the world or get out of his home town. Instead he stays and puts every ounce of energy he has into his father’s old Savings and Loan, which he is adamant the town needs so as to not become thoroughly beholden to the stingy and cruel Mr. Potter (who runs the bank). George falls in love with Mary, who’s always had a thing for him, and they set up house right there in town. But it’s one of those situations where it feels like no matter how much you give, you never get anything back and nothing goes right. We get to see George’s life and how desperate he’s been to leave and how conflicted he is about staying. When everything goes to hell and he thinks the S&L’s lost eight grand and he’ll be going to jail, well. It’s just too much. He wants to die. Worse, he wants to never have lived.

From there you know how it goes. He meets his guardian angel, who shows him Bedford Falls without him. His old boss spent time in jail since he wasn’t there to fix a mistake he made. No one knows him. Potter owns the whole town and everyone lives in shacks and slums. Violet, a woman who flirts with him outrageously in the regular world and is usually all dolled up but a nice gal at heart, is a drunk without George around. His mother is a bitter old widow who lost George’s brother as a boy since George wasn’t there to pull him out of a freezing pond. His friends are nasty and mean. And his wife? Well, Mary is… a LIBRARIAN! (Cue the gasp of horror – she even wears GLASSES!) Truly, everyone is suffering without George. And so he returns and everyone shows up to help him the way he’s helped them in the past and it all turns out just fine.

It’s a nice message, that if you give aid to others they’ll give it back when they can. It seems to me it’s a wonderful bit of Christmas spirit and puts me in mind of an incident that happened this year on this awesome blog where people started donating to other people just… because they needed it. And people who got more than they needed turned around and donated it to others. It’s that sort of message. True, in real life there are plenty of people who toil and work and give and give and give and don’t get recognized in any way. And that, I say, is a fucking travesty. Because when someone is a George Bailey, they should be recognized. But in this movie there is this wonderful ideal of community and friendship. True, it would be nice if the people who came through for George at the end had maybe been there for him more before that, but they showed up when it was needed. At Christmas. And George didn’t say he wanted to world to go back the way it was because of himself. He wanted it to go back because he knew while he was miserable, he’d truly made a difference, and other people would be happier. Again, idealized, but a nice message.

Now, there are some negatives here. The movie has a couple of racial stereotypes that make me wince, and George’s brother’s actions towards the family’s cook (an African American woman) are reprehensible at best. While there are some great lines and bits between George and Mary after the dance, his refusal to give her back her robe when she’s hiding in the bushes, ostensibly naked, makes me cringe. And his off-hand comment about the police being on his side is exceedingly gross. And Mary’s tragic alternate life as a spinster librarian always makes me laugh at its dramatic sting. But, well, time period, you know? It doesn’t make it okay, but it does explain some of where it comes from. And there are some bizarre bits that don’t seem to fit the time at all, like Mary’s line to her mother, snappily telling her that George “is making violent love to [her]” when her mother is snooping, which seems so out of place in the time. But as I said I pass over it and focus on the good stuff, like the fantastic plot and Jimmy Stewart’s amazing acting. I love him in this role. I love how desperate he is through the whole movie. How trapped he is and how he conveys it with facial expressions alone in several scenes.

It’s one of those movies people just know. It’s grown hugely in popularity to the point where it’s a cultural touchstone, and I like that. I honestly think, unfortunate racial and gender implications aside, that it is an excellent movie with wonderful acting and a fantastic script and plot. It’s quotable and easy to reference. It teaches a nice lesson that could be for Christmas or could be any time. And so it is our penultimate Christmas movie for this year. Sweet and heartfelt and a joy to watch.

December 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s a Wonderful Life

December 24, 2010

It’s a Wonderful Life

I’m probably not going to be able to be able to say anything new about this movie. It’s one of the most beloved of all Christmas stories, and with good reason. It’s kind of funny – I didn’t see the whole movie for most of my youth. I saw bits of it here and there over the years. It’s always being broadcast during the Christmas season. There are clips from this movie in two of the other movies we’ve reviewed for these twelve days of Christmas. But during this time of year there’s always so much else going on. There’s shopping and wrapping and cooking and such. So what with one thing or another I never managed to see this whole movie until I was about thirteen years old. (Heck, even tonight we have it playing in the background during a family dinner on Christmas Eve and there’s boisterous laughter and barking dogs and all kinds of distractions, so I’m maybe catching three words in ten.) I finally saw the whole movie in July one night when I has insomnia and it was on late one night on channel 38. It started at around one in the morning and with ads it lasted until four AM. Of course I loved every minute of it.

This is a movie to be savored. Oh, sure, everybody knows the story of this movie. It’s so familiar that it’s cliche. George Baily Is a small town guy who is foiled in his every attempt to escape and live his own life. Instead he stays home, takes over his father’s business, marries a girl who had a crush on him in high-school, fathers an enormous family and is generally an all around nice guy when he isn’t preoccupied with feeling all sorry for himself. This movie is inspired by one particular bout of extreme self pity when George actually becomes convinced that people would be better off if he weren’t around and just then his guardian angel shows up and shows him just how awful things would be for everybody he has ever known if he hadn’t been there.

It is couched in terms of this being a sort of Christmas miracle, what with Clarence the angel and such, but I view it more as speculative sci-fi. It’s a story about alternate universes and the many ways that one person’s life intersects with and influences the lives of many others. To that end the movie spends a lot of time introducing you to George Bailey and to his friends, loves, frustrations and dreams. Indeed it takes an hour and forty minutes for the film to reach the crucial turning point that is the crux of the movie. It’s not wasted time either – the many episodes in Georges life that are shown all act to help us fall in love with him, fall in love with his quaint home town, and learn to see the pattern in his life.

In many ways this is a simple movie. George’s home of Bedford Falls is a Norman Rockwell vision of simple American perfection (except for the evil Scrooge figure Mr. Potter.) There’s a formulaic repeated theme to every stage of George’s life with him being ready to set out on some grand adventure when some new disaster befalls his town or his father’s altruistic but never profitable savings and loan business which pulls him back in. Time and again he must put the welfare of the people of Bedford Falls ahead of his own until the inevitable moment when disaster strikes and he has that one particularly bad day. It is not a subtle movie. But it is wonderfully moving and touching nonetheless.

The fact that this movie works at all is mostly due to Jimmy Stewart. His oft lampooned stutter and passionate speeches drive the movie. He has that perfect everyman feel to him, as has often been pointed out. George Baily is the hero for every man who works his whole life and has nothing to show for it (except the love of his peers.) On the other side of the coin there’s Lionel Barrymore’s thoroughly loathsome Mr. Potter, who is the perfect foil for George’s enthusiasm and self sacrificing nature. Lionel’s sneer and squint convey so much about how utterly miserable his character is – and how miserable he wants everybody else to be.

We watched this tonight with Amanda’s brother and parents and all of them at various points did James Stewart impressions, and all of them were completely loving the movie. We were watching an old VHS copy of a colorized version of the film (the first thing we did was turn the color on the TV all the way down so we could watch it in proper black and white.) Amanda’s mother pointed out how brilliant Stewart is in the scene when George has his complete breakdown in front of his family. He has this haunted, haggard look that carries so much power after seeing him overcome every obstacle up until then in the movie. From there he gets to portray that great manic desperation of his fall from grace and his befuddlement when shown the horrifying nightmare world that would exist were it not for his influence. And the equally manic joy with which he greets everything that he once felt held him down is of course completely wonderful and uplifting.

It leaves me overwhelmed with joy and sobbing as always (somewhat embarrassing when hanging out with your in-laws.) I didn’t particularly want to be writing a lengthy review tonight of all nights, but this movie is to wonderful a tale to simply shrug off. I want all the world to know how much I truly love this movie. And all that I have to say in the end is “Merry Christmas, you old movie-a-day blog!”

December 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment