“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.”
A few weeks ago, when I wrote about Mr Smith Goes to Washington, I said, “Frank Capra cops a lot of flack for his movies being so simple in their morality and so cloying in their sentimentality.” It’s funny that I thought that after watching that movie, because compared to It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr Smith is some dark, cynical shit. It’s a Wonderful Life is the epitome of cloying sentimentality. It’s the epitome of the phrase Capra-esque, whether you see that as a good or bad thing. And like Mr Smith, it’s all of those things while be surprisingly watchable in its sincerity, and never too sickeningly sweet.
Clarence (Henry Travers) is a second class guardian angel. One night, he gets the call up from his superior for a new mission. Down on earth, in small town USA, George Bailey (James Stewart) is contemplating suicide. It’s Clarence’s job to convince George that life is worth living. But first, Clarence needs a history lesson on George’s life to this point.
One day, as a young boy, George saved his younger brother from drowning in a frozen lake, only to lose hearing in one of his ears as a result. Years later, he delayed going to college so he could help his father run a savings and loan business. When his father dies, George gives his hard earned college fund to his brother who gets to go off an be a football star while George stays home. All through his life, as George dreams of travel and adventure, he ends up staying home to help solve the latest crisis.
Along the way, he falls in love with and marries Mary (Donna Reed) and starts a family. But when local tycoon Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) sets in motion a scam that sees George on the verge of bankruptcy and imprisonment, it all becomes too much. Hence George contemplating jumping off a bridge and Clarence being sent down to intervene.
It’s a Wonderful Life has become a Christmas TV tradition in America, watched by millions every single year. But that was never the case when I was growing up in Australia. I knew it existed, I knew it was considered a classic, but I never actually saw it until a few years ago. And I’m glad. I think if I had seen it as young kid, it would have been boring. If I had seen it as teenager, it would have seemed too corny. But seeing it for the first time, a few years ago in my 20s, I found it really sweet. Seeing it again today in my 30s, it was even better.
Like the movie itself, James Stewart and Frank Capra were for a long time people I knew I should appreciate, but I kind of just took their movies for granted. Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to know why they’re so appreciated and why their movies have lived on for so long. Pulling off this kind of sentimental sincerity isn’t easy. And It’s a Wonderful Life is just further proof that Capra and Stewart were two of the masters.
Best Picture (nominated, lost to The Best Years of Our Lives)
Best Director (Capra nominated, lost to William Wyler for The Best Years of Our Lives)
Best Actor (Stewart nominated, lost to Fredric March for The Best Years of Our Lives)