List Of Shame: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

The sixth, and final entry, in the short lived List Of Shame project is one I should definitely feel shameful about not having seen since I was a tike!

Screenplay By: Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, & Michael Wilson
Directed By: Frank Capra

I have seen It’s A Wonderful Life before, but I last took in Frank Capra’s film when I was somewhere around five years old. All I really remembered about the film were this guy who I would later learn was a screen legend in Jimmy Stewart, that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings, and the extremely upbeat ending. Taking that into account and adding in all the comments I’ve read over the years about how relentlessly saccharine and sweet It’s A Wonderful Life is and I developed an idea in my head of It’s A Wonderful Life as the ultimate feel good movie. I’d like to tell you folks something, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What will stay with me the most from It’s A Wonderful Life, and there is a lot to take away from the film, is the darkness of Mr. Capra’s tome to the human spirit. Yes, It’s A Wonderful Life does have a sweet and happy ending, and it does have a few individual moments of happiness. Those moments and the ending are the exception in It’s A Wonderful Life, not the norm. This is a film with one down beat after another, with a lead character who faces the continued crushing of his dreams. The ultimate message may be that George Bailey’s true dream was there all along in his family and the townspeople, but that doesn’t change how heartbreaking it is to watch every other dream of George’s get shot down by fate. As the final frame of It’s A Wonderful Life closes we know that George has triumphed, that the human spirit is reigning supreme, but what it took to get George to that point is extremely dark material for a movie heralded as a feel good story.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a film where the lead character comes to his wits end and decides the only way to deal with the situation is suicide. Think about that for a second, then add in the same man getting stuck in a job he doesn’t want because his dad dies. Add in that same man holding down that job on the idea that his brother will take his place only to have his brother take a job somewhere else. Add in the lead character being constantly against the wall, and even going so far as being forced to give up all but two dollars of the money he’s just received for a honeymoon with his new bride to try and save the loan business he never wanted in the first place. None of these are happy moments, they are moments when a man is beaten down by the circumstances around him. What may give people the idea of the movie being relentlessly sweet is that George Bailey puts on a happy veneer for every situation. Happy veneer aside, what happens to get George Bailey to his happy ending is very dark, surprisingly so.

Another aspect of It’s A Wonderful Life that I became enamored with was the focus that Mr. Capra put on characters faces. He uses close-ups often, and he holds people faces. The story is there, it is narrated and told in such a way that it’s impossible for people to miss any of the story. What Mr. Capra does is allow the emotion to come from his characters faces, and he highlights their faces often to make sure that the emotions of the characters washes over the audience. The rest of the film is quality as well, but I was taken with the way Mr. Capra focused on faces and used faces, especially Jimmy Stewart’s, to bring the audience along on the emotional journey of the film.

As far as the rest of It’s A Wonderful Life goes, I have very little to add to the discussion. It is a charming movie, and a well filmed movie. The actors are all very good, with Jimmy Stewart obviously being the standout. It’s A Wonderful Life is a movie that fits the definition of “can do no wrong” because no matter what turn the film takes it works. Loads of people have lauded It’s A Wonderful Life with praise over the years and every bit of that praise is well deserved and earned. I can’t tell anyone to go and see It’s A Wonderful Life, it would be stupid of me to suggest that course of action for what may be the most seen movie in the history of film. What I can do is tell everyone that It’s A Wonderful Life is a brilliant film, but everyone already knows that, I hope.




6 responses to “List Of Shame: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

  1. Lovely write-up for my favorite film of all-time! I watched it first when I was quite young and then almost every year after. It’s the sort of film that grows up with you: you don’t realize quite how dark it is when you’re young, but it all hits home more and more, the older you get and the more you relate to George Bailey, as fewer of your dreams are realized, as your life isn’t quite what you’d imagined. But like George Bailey, you also discover riches in the most unexpected places – you just have to know where to look and to realize what you have. I love the brutal, dark honesty of the film – and it’s that honesty, as you point out, that people forget – or don’t realize is there because they’ve characterized the film by just the very last scene.

    My only quibble with your review is in the last two lines: I think most people think they’ve seen it, but haven’t, not really, not as adults and not all the way through. So DO tell people to go see it – please! 🙂

  2. In retrospect the reason I think the darkness of the story is so important is because without it the “bright” moments aren’t quite as bright. The honesty you point out is the poignancy that makes the final moments when we see how great the life that George has made for himself really is all the more impacting.

    Ha, that is a great point that I didn’t think about. I’ll try and spread the word as best I can. 🙂

  3. Beautiful review Bill. I hadn’t thought about the characters’ faces being highlighted before, but now that you mention it, I will be watching more closely as I’m sure to see it this season. I too love the film more and more as I get older. George Bailey has the strength of character that encourages me when life gets difficult. Hello to your family!

  4. Cool Sandy, it’s always interesting to hear about a film affecting someone deeply.

    Hello to your family as well, I believe my wife is sending out Christmas cards this week and one shall be coming your way. 🙂

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