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Scenes of the Season: It’s a Wonderful Life

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Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, has become one of the most watched films of the holiday season.  I can remember years when it seemed like it was showing on a loop—at least if you had cable.  This year, astonishingly, it doesn’t seem to be showing anywhere.  I know that can’t be right. Can it?

It hardly seems necessary to say anything about it—like Casablanca it’s one of those movies that even if you’ve never seen it, you probably still know the gist of it.

[mild spoiler alert] James Stewart is George Bailey, a small town guy with big dreams. He wants to shake that small town dust off his feet and see the world. And build things. Then he meets Mary (Donna Reed). Life seems pretty good, despite the fact that he never does get out of that small town. He runs the Savings & Loan that his father started and is the most popular guy in town. It’s Christmas Eve, and his brother  is returning for the holidays after being given the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the war. But then things go terribly wrong over the course of Christmas Eve, and he ends up wishing he’d never been born. And an angel grants his wish.

The scenes where George meets Mary and where they decide to marry are alone worth the price of admission. And if you’ve wondered who Donna Reed was and why she had her own TV show, you’ll find out.

The film was a bit of a box office dud when it came out. It’s not as tight as other Capra movies; at 125 minutes it feels a bit long, and could have used some editing. And Capra’s corn-fed populism seemed to have run its course, as the strong turn towards noir in the post-war years might suggest. In fact, Capra never really made another major film, certainly none that are remembered or watched today. His heyday was the 1930s, when he had a string of hits that are still popular: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938)—a personal favorite—and whatis his most critically acclaimed film, and after Wonderful Life the one most frequently watched today, It Happened One Night (1934), with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

Directors working with the same actors on a number of films were fairly common in the heyday of Hollywood, but Capra’s working relationship with his staple actors was particularly rewarding. Lionel Barrymore in You Can’t Take it With You and Wonderful Life—a bit curmudgeon-y in both, but charming in the former and cruel in the latter.  Jean Arthur—astonishingly charming, “the quintessential comedic leading lady”—in You Can’t Take it With You and Mr. Deeds.  And James Stewart. James Stewart in two of his most remembered performances, in Mr. Smith and Wonderful Life, as well as in You Can’t Take it With You, in which he’s great.  Stewart has been better, and been in much better movies—including another holiday movie, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  But Stewart’s roles and performances in the Capra movies tend to really stay with people.

As I said, I haven’t been able to find when and where It’s a Wonderful Life is showing on TV this season, but you can watch the whole movie online on YouTube:

For more…

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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