Light up your Christmas this year, with this timeless classic starring the unforgettable James Stewart as George Bailey and featuring a superb ensemble cast including Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.
Whenever the perennial subject of The Greatest Film Ever Made rears its head, I always turn into a smart-arse and confidently explain that such a thing is not possible to find. How can you possibly begin to compare Citizen Kane with The Godfather, or Jaws? It’s absurd!
So why is it, every time I see It’s A Wonderful Life I am absolutely convinced that it is The Greatest Film Ever Made?
Maybe it’s because it is truly a film everyone can love and no-one has to think of it as a guilty pleasure. The modern equivalent seems to be The Shawshank Redemption, but even that has a violence enough to shock your granny. It’s A Wonderful Life should be cloyingly sentimental, but it was always Capra’s skill to offset his films with enough irony and honesty so it was easier to sell and identify with. Indeed, in this case everyone talks about Clarence the befuddled angel, rescuing George from a suicide attempt which does sound twee, but actually, that is the last act. The story is about how he gets to that point, so if you have it in your head that it is a fairy-story for fairies, well it’s not. It’s a good hearted drama. The frequent scenes with Lionel Barrymore are testament to that, especially where Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy makes his terrible error. I always thought how brilliant it is that mistake should be left unresolved too and the plot doesn’t contrive some neat resolution, but continues to subscribe to the idea that when pushed into a corner, people will ultimately just deal with it and do the right thing.
It is the perfect Capra film and I do think it is his best work. He and the cast, working from as sharp and witty screenplay as they come, play their roles with such deft subtlety, that the pacing is utterly perfect. There isn’t a note out of place. As an example, I always think of the scene where George returns home on Christmas Eve, at the end of his tether and hiding his shame by lashing out at his family. It is a sublime scene of pacing, acting and… ‘mise en scene’. It isn’t often I use that term, but this is a most apt moment to which it should be applied. Perhaps the kids will jar with their pleas to “Daddy”, but if you think that then you’re a cold hearted git…
James Stewart was never better than here as George Bailey. Possibly Vertigo or another Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but again, in a film so easily dismissed, there are layers to George you may not expect to find. Mitchell and Barrymore are both excellent too, but even the bit-parts like Ward Bond have their moments and all make a mark. Donna Reed may be the most inspired casting though. She is wonderful. Who wouldn’t consider spending their whole lives in the same place if she was there too? And finally there is Clarence of course, played by Henry Travers. A relatively small part, but ubiquitous to the story.
I watched this on the recently released Blu-Ray, which includes a colourised version. A dreadful idea, but very well done all the same. I wouldn’t watch it, but if it finds the film a new generation then maybe I shouldn’t sneer at its existence. Still, new viewers should be ashamed for needing such persuasion in the first place.
In any form, it isn’t the greatest film, of course. Such a notion is absurd. But it is at least in the top one.