#142) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
OR “The Chaos Theory Holiday Special”
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Capra and Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett. Additional Scenes by Jo Swerling. Based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern.
Class of 1990
The Plot: On Christmas Eve, the entire idyllic town of Bedford Falls prays for George Bailey (James Stewart), the Buildings & Loans manager who has helped out the whole town in lieu of his own dreams. These prayers are assigned to George’s guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who takes a look at the important moments in George’s life. There’s his courtship with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), his decades-long feud with stingy Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), and all the small good deeds he’s done that, while seemingly inconsequential, make a world of difference in everyone’s life. And if you don’t know what happens next, I welcome you to our planet.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a holiday favorite” that “has become synonymous with Christmas spirit”.
But Does It Really?: If this movie doesn’t warm your heart, you probably didn’t have one to begin with. “It’s a Wonderful Life” succeeds not just as a great holiday film, but also as a great film, period. Most Christmas movies get caught up in presents and Santa, but “It’s a Wonderful Life” has a message that’s far more important than the holidays: YOUR LIFE is important and you are here for a reason. The film may be a textbook example of sentimental “Capra corn”, but with a story this life affirming, and a cast and crew this perfect, who cares?
Everybody Gets One: Most of the minor supporting cast, special mention to future TV producer Sheldon Leonard as Nick.
Wow, That’s Dated: Certain attitudes towards women (mainly Violet Bick) and minorities (Potter calls the Martinis “garlic eaters”) don’t hold up. This is also back when we didn’t know how dangerous lead tinsel was, so we dumped all of it on our Christmas trees.
Title Track: No exact matches, but Clarence does tell George “You really had a wonderful life.”
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite a mixed response from critics and audiences, “It’s a Wonderful Life” managed five Oscar nominations, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. The film lost all of its major nominations (as well as its box office) to the more topically relevant “The Best Years of Our Lives”. “Wonderful Life” did, however, take home a Technical Achievement Oscar for creating a new artificial snow compound made of soap flakes. That story again: the most Oscar-worthy aspect of this film is the snow.
- Liberty Films, an RKO Release; does any company associated with this film still exist? Did it premiere on the DuMont Network?
- So according to this film’s theology, our guardian angels don’t show up until we’re at our lowest point? I thought they were always around. And what has Clarence been doing the last 200 years?
- Wow, this movie goes dark real fast. In the first ten minutes we get suicidal thoughts, a physical impairment, an off-screen death, and child abuse.
- George, Mary, and Violet are all around the same age in the flashbacks. Donna Reed and Gloria Grahame were within two years of each other. Jimmy Stewart, not so much.
- You can feel the electricity between George and Mary from their first scene. The entire dance sequence is just delightful.
- George tells Mary not to call the police because “they’ll be on my side”. Kinda creepy, perennial holiday classic.
- My viewing of this film came right after the Senate passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. George’s speech to Potter and the board struck a chord with me that I was not expecting.
- What’s with the raven? I know it’s Capra’s good luck charm, but…what?
- George, stop kissing your mom.
- Jimmy Stewart is great of course, but Donna Reed does not get the credit she deserves. It helps that Mary is much more interesting than most “wife of main character” roles, and Reed adds a lot.
- Never turn down plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
- This film has some massive continuity issues. Someone fell asleep at the wheel.
- Uncle Billy accidentally puts the $8000 in Potter’s newspaper. And that’s why print media is dead!
- As of this writing, three of the four Bailey children are still with us: Carol Coombs (Janie), Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu), and Jimmy Hawkins (Tommy).
- Why does it stop snowing in the alternate universe? Does George affect the weather too?
- Angels must hate that cash registers don’t ring anymore. Do you think they’ve gone digital?
- Mary’s a spinster librarian!? Nooooooo! At least in the original short story she was married to someone else. And in another version Mary works at a gentlemen’s club in pre-war Hawaii.
- And then George runs around yelling “Merry Christmas!” and it’s just perfect and I’m not crying you’re crying.
- Lots of questions about the ending. What happens to the car? Does George still have to account for the missing money? And Capra couldn’t add one line about Mr. Potter giving the money back or dying of a heart attack or something?
- This ending may be the first recorded example of crowdsourcing.
And now a look at what the world would be like If “It’s a Wonderful Life” Had Never Been Made…
- All sitcoms are forced to parody another holiday classic every year.
- The 1977 TV Movie “It Happened One Christmas” is hailed as a completely original holiday classic.
- Your local theater company performs some other ‘40s movie as a live radio drama. I dunno, probably “Rebecca”.
- Biff Tannen is corrupt, powerful, and married to your mother. And this has happened to me…
- For some reason the 1990 National Film Registry selects “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” for the 25th film that year.
- “SNL” experiences inexplicable dead air during their 1986 William Shatner episode.
- MST3K loses a lot of its references. I did not realize how much they went to this movie’s well.
- And most importantly, Bert & Ernie from “Sesame Street” are named… Bert & Ernie. That one’s a coincidence.
Further Viewing: “Filmmaker IQ” can be a bit dry, but it has some of the most informative filmmaking videos on the web. This episode details the bizarre copyright issue that inadvertently turned “It’s a Wonderful Life” into a classic.