movie film review | chris tookey

It's A Wonderful Life

© Unknown - all rights reserved
  It's A Wonderful Life Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
9.81 /10
James Stewart , Henry Travers , Donna Reed
Full Cast >

Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling from the story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern.

Released: 1946
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Length: 129


Clarence, an angel (Henry Travers), shows a man on the verge of suicide, George Bailey (James Stewart, pictured centre), the value of his life.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

What was the hottest ticket in the British cinema in Christmas, 1997? Which film could guarantee full houses and make grown men weep - along with the rest of their families? It was this film - one that was more than fifty years old, flopped on first release, was disliked by most critics and had a troubled production history. Two of its three writers called it “horrid” and refused to see it when it was finished.
It also runs counter to virtually everything that’s mainstream in recent cinema. There is no sex, no bad language, no violence. The special effects are laughable. Heaven is represented by a few lights and the voices of offscreen angels.
But despite, or perhaps because of, all this, It's a Wonderful Life remains up there among many people's favourite films. Even though it has been shown endlessly on television over the years, thousands still flock to see this old-fashioned, uplifting and simple morality tale. It's a tough homily about the imortance of duty, family and the responsibilities of capitalism.
It is, so far as I am aware, the only film in history which owes its genesis to a greetings card. When Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story called The Greatest Gift, a variation on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, he couldn’t find a publisher. So he sent it to his friends as a Christmas card. The Hollywood studio RKO heard about it, and commissioned three of America’s most distiguished screenwriters - Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly and Clifford Odets - to develp a script.
Director Frank Capra fell in love with the idea, but didn’t like the scripts. (Only one scene, by Odets survives: the hero rescues his pharmacist employer from committing a lethal mistake over a prescription.) So Capra hired Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a husband and wife team behind The Thin Man (1934).
Capra ‘s first and only choice for the central role was James Stewart, with whom he’d already worked during the Thrties on two of his biggest successes, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Mr Smith Goes to Washington. So Capra pitched the story idea to Stewart, but started to lose impetus. Half-way through, Capra jumped to his feet, saying: “I haven’t got a story. This is the lousiest piece of cheese I ever heard of. Forget it, Jimmy... Forget it!”
Stewart’s reply has passed into showbiz legend: “I just said ‘Frank, if you want to do a movie about me committing suicide, with an angel with no wings named Clarence, I’m your man’.“
As with many of the greatest films, the shooting of the film was a miserable experience. Goodrich and Hackett fell out with Capra who demanded co-writing credit. Capra squabbled with his cinematographer Victor Milner throughout, and eventually had him replaced - and some of his scenes reshot - by Joseph Walker. Capra had a row with composer Dimitri Tiomkin, during which Hollywood’s foremost composer claimed that the diminutive Italian-American director had pulled his hair.
The most influential columnist in Hollywood, Hedda Hopper, broke off relations with Capra when he cast Donna Reed as the wife, instead of Hopper’s choice, Ginger Rogers.
Even the normally reliable Stewart was shaky on his lines, and admitted that - after six years of distinguished wartime service - he wasn’t sure any more whether being an actor was worthwhile. Capra asked Lionel Barrymore, who played Potter, the wily villain, to give Stewart a pep talk.
Barrymore told him: “Jimmy, don’t ever forget that acting is the greatest profession ever invented. When you act, you move millions of people, shape their lives, give them a sense of exaltation. No other profession has that power.”
Stewart admitted in his memoirs “I was terribly influenced by what he said”, and there is an intensity in his performance that is even greater than in his pre-war films.
The original reviews were very mixed. Fantasy films were not taken seriously in the 1940s; and the consensus was that this was a picture which sugarcoated reality. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times led the attack, calling it "a figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes". Others called it “Capracorn”. More recently, that doyen of American critics, Pauline Kael, accused it of being “doggerel trying to pass as art”.
Surprisingly in view of its lukewarm reviews, the film won Capra the Foreign Correspondents' Golden Globe Award as Best Director; and was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Picture.
James Stewart was disappointed when the public at large seemed to agree with the more carping critics:
“It didn't do well at all. I don't think it was the type of story people wanted right after the war. They wanted a war-related story or a pure slapstick, Red Skelton-type of comedy. Our movie just got lost.”
But to the end of his life, Stewart always named It’s A Wonderful Life as his favourite movie, and Capra remained unrepentant about its merits: "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made. It wasn't made for the oh-so-bored critics or the oh-so-jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people."
Despite his confidence, the film ended up half a million dollars in the red. It is only thanks to television that it has become of the best-loved films of all time.
Many critics missed the heart of this movie. Though often thought of as sentimental and upbeat, the reason it is so profoundly moving is that - like Casablanca and many other classics - it ventures into the heart of darkness and despair. Far less sentimental than it’s portrayed, the film is stylistically a high point of film noir.
James Stewart uses all his skill, integrity and acting range to play a central figure, who is no Pollyanna, but depressed, full of self-pity and contemplating suicide. Stewart gives one of the cinema’s most tortured performances, and one reason the movie failed at first with audiences was that they may not have likes seeing Stewart behave so badly - crashing a car while drunk, insulting his harmless old uncle, shouting at children.
Like a character in one of Warner Brothers’ darkest gangster films, George Bailey is trapped inside a nightmare. Far from being the “nice” small-town folk perceived by the original critics, George’s fellow citizens even threaten to ruin him by drawing their money out of the very institution which George has been using to give them a decent life.
Two Forties critics, Paul Rotha and Richard Griffith, went so far as to describe the film as “a vivid portrayal of dog-eat-dog methods in small-town business.” As in many a gangster movie, the only person who understands the hero is the principal villain, Potter , who tempts him - diabolically, but sensibly - with security and a high salary.
Even the happy ending is anything but sunny escapism, and It’s A Wonderful Life is, in part, an ironic title. The villain ends up richer than ever (Potter even gets to keep Uncle Billy’s mislaid 8,000 dollars - something that no modern Hollywood movie would allow him to get away with, but nobody cares; the important thing is that the hero is back in the bosom of the family, counting his blessings.
The movie’s Christmas message of anti-materialism is patently sincere - and probably needed more now than it was in 1946.
The film has to be the greatest of all movies about middle-aged, middle-class self-sacrifice. It’s always been one of my favourites, and every time I see it I cry through it again, marvelling anew at its mixture of simple good-heartedness and raw emotional power.
Whether you have seen it before or not, I would urge you to look at it again - on the big screen, if you can. It’s a Wonderful Life is still a wonderful film.
"Such a pure movie. It wasn't taken from a novel or a play. It was developed from one little paragraph. Simple story, no message, no violence, no mob scenes. When the movies have a story like this, they do it better than any medium there is."
(James Stewart)

Key to Symbols