Director Frank Capra
Stars James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
Things You Might Like
- James Stewart’s acting masterclass through the emotions
- Capra’s brand of despondency and warmth at its best
- Not as much schmaltz as you think
- The Pottersville scene
- A good, happy ending (what, it’s from 1946)
Things You Might Not Like
- The ‘colourized’ version – don’t do it
It’s a Wonderful Life is a real masterpiece of filmmaking, from Capra’s perfect direction to James Stewart’s incredible performance.
5 out of 5 Bells Ring
A perennial Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life has warmed the hearts of many a scrooge in the almost seventy years since its release. Starring James Stewart and directed by Frank Capra, it is the coming together of two cinematic geniuses that make the film so cherished year after year. Nowhere near as schmaltzy as people like to think, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the reasons cinema was invented.
Set on Christmas Eve in the small town of Bedford Falls, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of the often-unlucky George Bailey from childhood to fatherhood. Framed by the narration of a guardian angel, Clarence, we know from the outset that George’s life is not what he planned. As events seem to conspire against him leaving Bedford Falls and accomplishing all he dreams of, George becomes more and more despondent. One night he gets so low that he thinks about taking his own life, this is of course where Clarence famously enters to show George what a world without him would really be like.
Of course the ending is happy and there’s a cute child talking about bells, but the strength of the film is not in the neatly wrapped gifts. It’s a Wonderful Life is all about what a man does when he doesn’t get any of the presents he was relying on, when he chooses to give them up to make other people happy and when he takes nothing for himself. The ever decreasing success of George Bailey is the backbone of the film, watching him wince as he gives up yet another dream for someone else. This is a film about a man driven to suicide, not about angels sweeping down to clear everything up.
Anchoring George’s descent is a bravura performance from James Stewart, controlling the slow fall of George’s mask of happiness from his face. He excels in every part of George, from the happy-go-lucky young man to the father about to be sent to prison. As madness falls over George, Stewart keeps it locked inside – a man who know’s he is losing it would do everything they could to appear in control of course. Stewart was rightly nominated by the Academy for Best Actor for his work.
Capra was nominated too, for Best Picture and Best Director. Rarely has a film been so shaped in mood and tone by an auteur as skilled as Frank Capra. Building on what had become a familiar formula to audiences, Capra pulls every bit of his heartfelt direction together to complete one perfect film. It’s a Wonderful Life is more than a motion picture, because of Capra each scene is a work of art. Scenes like the snowy bridge are like oil paintings, while the famous Pottersville sequence is a moment of terrifying nihilism that films like Back to the Future Part II would replicate decades later.
There are many, many more reasons to love It’s a Wonderful Life but the best has to be the combination of two titans at the top of their game. James Stewart is watchable in anything, fantastic in this film and, with Frank Capra, created a character that resonates more than half a century later.
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