Fresh Eyes: It's a Wonderful Life
Harrison Brockwell's parents were really sensitive when it came to what media he was exposed to as a child, so he has a ton of blind spots with regards to cinema. He'll be rectifying that for your pleasure, applying a pair of 'fresh eyes' to classic movies, both traditional and modern, and reviewing them from a place of near-blind ignorance in his Fresh Eyes column. For this entry, he covers a Christmas classic...
Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life is one of those films that is synonymous with Christmas. The only reason it took me so long to finally get around to it was my personal bias against the film, or rather, my preconceived notions. I never made it past the title, as I assumed it was overly sweet and saccharine, as the only parts of the film literally everyone knows are the lines about lassoing the moon and the child screeching about angels getting their wings during the finale.
So imagine my surprise when I sat down, dreading a sweet and sappy 130 minutes, to be greeted with a montage of people praying for George Bailey (played to perfection by James Stewart), who is contemplating suicide, for reasons that become apparent later in the film. A framing device of God and an angel-in-training, Clarence, talking through George's life up to that point. The audience is taken along for the ride, and we see George grow up and go from high point to low point and back again. All he wants out of life is to get out of his quiet little hometown and go explore the world, but he is repeatedly required to give up his dreams of adventure for various reasons, ranging from family illness, The Great Depression, and the onset of World War II. Eventually George has to take over his father's savings and loan office entirely, and retires his childhood dream forever, in exchange for a wife, a family, and his job.
This opening hour and 44 minutes are where the film shines the most. The tone of the film oscillates from cheerful to dark to sweet, but none of these shifts feel off or undeserved. Life has a funny way of behaving in the same fashion, with tragedy occurring right when you feel like nothing can go wrong, and this portion of the film captures the essence of life's unpredictability very well.
The cheesier aspects of the script totally work in context, as well. George's lines to his future wife about lassoing the moon resonated much more than expected. Everyone has said corny things like that to the people they love, and we can relate to that sense of wanting to do anything for that one person who means the world to us.
Then, George has his one bad day, where he loses all the money in his loan office, gets rejected by the one man who can save his business (Lionel Barrymore, playing supreme grump Mr. Potter), and is informed that he is worth more dead than alive. This leads George to almost kill himself to save the business he had already given his dreams for and most of his life to keep open. Clarence the angel falls into his life and, in what feels like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone, shows him what life in the town would have been for everyone if he hadn't been born. George decides that he shouldn't kill himself, and then returns home to find the entire town dumping money at his feet to save his business.
I feel like these last 30 minutes of the film severely hamper the rest, but I don't really see how it could have ended any other way. I have personal issues with anything that is overly sentimental or saccharine, but for the most part, Frank Capra walks that edge expertly. The last act's doubling down on the "what if you weren't born" concept was probably fresh back in 1946, but now it's something I have seen so many times that I just tune out whenever it turns up. It is easy to mine emotion from the idea that everyone you know doesn’t remember who you are, as that would be traumatic for anyone. But for a film that handles the highs and lows of life so well up until this point, and in a fairly creative way, this plot device seems almost too easy. This final section also feels rushed in comparison to everything that came before it. When an hour and 44 minutes has been spent on the points of George's life leading up to this, the turning point of his life should be given more time to breathe. It's A Wonderful Life feels like it should have been one of those three hour epics with an intermission, but instead sits at a rather crisp 130 minutes.
After having seen it, I can see why other people consider It's A Wonderful Life to be a Christmas classic, despite not focusing on Christmas until the final act. Most audiences love sentimentality, and most people with a heart can easily get behind this film. However, as someone who carries a distaste for the overly sentimental, I'll keep my current Christmas traditions of watching A Christmas Story, Iron Man 3, and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.