It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – Not merely a Christmas movie

On Christmas Eve I watched Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life for the first time and I gotta say I’m a little disappointed. Although it definitely delivers a feeling of reconciliation and heartwarming feel-good conclusion, which has become essential for Christmas movies, it doesn’t feel fully deserved as the focus lies elsewhere in my opinion. Unlike many plot synopses suggest, the movie, for the most part, tells the (mostly interesting) story of George Bailey (James Stewart). The well-known alternative vision of the town’s path had Bailey never been born only constitutes most of the latter third, introduced by the attempted suicide (and to be fair, also serves as a narrative frame as the angel Clarence, who is supposed to save George, is shown “flashbacks” of his life for preparation). Despite being crucial to the take-home message, it feels a little rushed compared to the slightly overlong telling of Bailey’s life story.

George Bailey is an absolute role model due to his selflessness and compassion and a fascinating character to watch. Throughout his life, he proves that by being helpful to people in trouble or neglecting his own aspirations for the benefit of others. Even as a child, he acts very maturely (e.g. when he prevents Mr. Gower, his boss and an apothecary, from accidentally poisoning a child) and even loses his hearing on one ear in the process of rescuing his brother. He has always been dreaming of going out into the world; however, other people, such as his brother, who could have enabled George to leave Bedford Falls, always prevented him from pursuing that dream due to their (often selfish) decisions. George takes over his father’s firm, which gives out loans to the poor people, after his death and keeps standing up to Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest man in town and the only other banker, preventing him from having the monopoly in Bedford Falls.

At the high school graduation of his brother, he meets Mary (Donna Reed), a very nice and jolly girl who has always had a crush on him; they dance in a very entertaining scene with the swimming pool beneath the school gym. George’s interest in Mary is obvious but he behaves like a jerk both after the prom and even after he returns from college. His quest for her doesn’t make him likeable nor is it entertaining to watch. However, they still get together and marry. As they are about to leave for their honeymoon, they witness a run on their bank and sacrifice their honeymoon savings to save the business. At this point at the latest, the viewer realizes George is never to leave the town.

No wonder he snaps after his idiot uncle loses freakin’ 8000$ on Christmas Eve while bragging to Mr. Potter about his nephew, who returns as a war hero. A bank examiner arrives and the firm and George’s freedom are in grave danger even though George did nothing wrong. He yells at his family and even in this moment of desperation realizes he did them wrong, apologizes and leaves to commit suicide.

wonderful-life
Copyright: AMPAS

But due to his merciful character, he is even unable to do that as Clarence, his guardian angel, makes George rescue him from drowning. George doesn’t believe Clarence’s story and wishes he would never have been born. Clarence shows him the town’s fate were this wish fulfilled, which reveals to George he helped (one might even say saved) a whole lotta people from worse lives. He rejoices and begs for his life back, runs home and hugs his entire family. And then all the people he’s treated nicely and who consider themselves his friend help him out and bring him money in a slightly over-sentimental and also pretty cheesy finale.

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Copyright: AMPAS

This overt message that you don’t need money when you have friends over-simplifies the story in my opinion. It believe to be a plea for altruism and selflessness and Capra also did not intend it to be a Christmas film; he wanted to focus on the everyman, the plain citizens of America, who were struggling after WWII. Of course, it is also a critique on greed and rapacity, personified by Mr. Potter, which destroy Bailey eventually, but as I stated

James Stewart does a terrific job as George Bailey in a nicely understated performance and Donna Reed is a strong match with her charisma. I also want to highlight Lionel Barrymore in his amazingly hateworthy, almost scrooge-esque performance as Mr. Potter.

All things considered, the film is interesting and mostly entertaining, even though cringeworthy, e.g. due to outdated behavior, and with some pacing issues. I find it a bit overrated as this absolute masterpiece and classic (and #24 on IMDb?!) but nonetheless I deem it watchworthy, albeit not one I would choose for an annual watching ritual for Christmas.

35v5


shorter German version:

Frank Capras Weihnachtsklassiker, der eigentlich gar nicht ursprünglich als reiner Weihnachtsfilm angedacht war. Die Geschichte von George Bailey nimmt einen Großteil dieses Films ein; ganz anders, als die meisten Inhaltsangaben das suggerieren, passiert der versuchte Selbstmord erst im letzten Drittel. Bailey ist aber ein faszinierender Charakter aufgrund seiner Selbstlosigkeit und Barmherzigkeit. Er wollte immer raus in die Welt, aber er kann die Stadt nicht im Stich lassen; Bailey wird immer wieder davon abgehalten, seinen Traum zu leben, und wird letztendlich von der Raffgier Amerikas (hier personifiziert von dem scrooge-esken Banker Potter) fast zerstört. Dann (erst) kommt das berühmte und zurecht so gefeierte Finale, wie das Schicksal der Stadt verlaufen wäre, wäre Bailey nie geboren worden. Dieses Plädoyer für Altruismus und Selbstlosigkeit, Capras Fokus auf die einfachen Bürger Amerikas, gerät oft etwas in den Hintergrund gegenüber der offensichtlichen Botschaft: Wer braucht Geld, wenn er Freunde hat. Aber für mich lässt sich der Film viel zu viel Zeit für George Baileys Geschichte, dass das die Take-Home-Message ist. Sie passt zwar wunderbar zu Weihnachten, wirkt aber mMn auch arg idealisierend, da hätte man das Sentimentalitätslevel etwas runterschrauben können. Außerdem nutzen ihn seine Freunde immer ein bisschen aus und verfolgen ihre eigenen Träume auf Kosten derer von George. Der Film ließ mich mit gemischten Gefühlen zurück, weil mir das Pacing des Films etwas unstringent und die offensichtliche Botschaft etwas sehr einfach vorkam und vor allem recht hastig darauf hingeleitet wird.

Das Leben von Bailey zu sehen ist größtenteils interessant oder unterhaltsam, mitunter aber fremdschämig oder nervig. Schon als Junge sehr intelligent, schlägt sich Bailey sehr gut und hat hervorragende Aussichten; der Highschool-Abschlussball seines Bruders ist recht unterhaltsam mit der Pool-Szene, seine Bemühungen um seine zukünftige Frau Mary sind nach dem Ball aber sehr unsympathisch und überhaupt nicht unterhaltsam. Auch die ständige Zerstörung seiner Träume ist zwar für die Narrative notwendig, macht das mittlere Drittel aber länglich und frustrierend, auch weil die Ursache seines größten Problems überhaupt nichts mit eigenem Verschulden zu tun hat. Da wirken die Ausraster daheim absolut gerechtfertigt. Dieser Frust macht die Wendung immerhin effektiver und der Film kriegt dann noch die Kurve zu einem versöhnlichen Ende.

James Stewart spielt diesen Charakter hervorragend unbemüht und auch Diana Reed funktioniert super als Sonnenschein Mary. Von den Nebenfiguren hervorzuheben ist Lionel Barrymore, der Potter schön eklig verkörpert; den Schauspieler von Clarence fand ich eher durchschnittlich.

Finde ich als absoluten Klassiker persönlich etwas überbewertet (Platz #24 bei imdb ?!), wird für mich zu keinem Weihnachtszeit-Ritual, mir diese 140 Minuten öfters anzuschauen; nichtsdestotrotz ein guter Film, den man gesehen haben sollte.


All images taken from imdb.com, © by AMPAS/Liberty Films

title image: © by AMPAS

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