Dirty Dozen – July Mission – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Its-a-wonderful-life

As a pop culture addict, there are a few movies which I know only by the way they’re portrayed in other media. Taxi Driver is one; It’s A Wonderful Life is another. I’ve never felt the need to watch IAWL before because I was sure that I already knew the story: salt of the earth George Bailey finds himself in a financial jam on Christmas Eve, tries to kill himself only to be saved both by his guardian angel and his friends. The whole group then goes down to Mr. Potter’s office and wreaks revenge on the miserly old bastard. As you can tell, my supposed understanding of IAWL mostly comes from the old SNL sketch about the film’s lost ending. I fully expected the film to be complete and utter schmaltz, and thus, to be avoided. After watching it over the weekend, though, I am happy to say that my expectations were wrong: It’s A Wonderful Life was endearing, and not as schmaltzy as I’d believed it to be.
What surprised me the most about It’s A Wonderful Life is that the guardian angel part of the story took up remarkably little screen time. It is there from the start, but doesn’t fully come into play with about half an hour left in the film. I was expecting something roughly akin to the flashbacks Ebenezer Scrooge experienced in A Christmas Carol. Instead, the film tells George Bailey’s life story in sequence, from his time as a young boy up to his adulthood. Jimmy Stewart is a wonderful actor, and George Bailey is certainly one of his most iconic roles. Stewart portrays him as good natured to a fault, a man who had plans for his life. Over the course of the movie, we watch him as his plans fall by the wayside one at a time, the result of events overtaking him. Stewart plays these moments incredibly well, showing the small cracks in his demeanour. It makes Bailey a much more relatable character to me than I would have expected.
Another part of the film that surprised me was the way George’s courtship with Mary (Donna Reed was portrayed. For a film that’s primarily known as a holiday classic, the courtship was remarkably more adult and flirtatious than I’d have expected. I’m thinking in particular of the walk home from the dance after they fell in the pool. They played the scene perfectly, with humour and endearment. Their whole relationship, in fact, is the chief reason I liked It’s A Wonderful Life so much. In lesser hands, the portrayals of Mary and George could have been your typical Hollywood romance. With Reed and Stewart, however, there is a grounding of the two that made them feel much more real to me. They acted like people, not characters, which was refreshing. I’d loved to have seen more of that kind of acting in the film.
One of the things I didn’t like about It’s A Wonderful Life was that, when you look past the immediate household of George and Mary, the movie is stocked with characters who are decidedly less grounded. For example, let’s look at Uncle Billy. His forgetfulness was pushed to the extreme, and there was the oddity of his having a raven as a pet. I understand that the Baileys were supposed to be non-businessmen, but his quirks made him a decidedly one-note character. The same can also be said for Mr. Potter. He is the archetype Hollywood villain, the bitter old millionaire. We know everything about George Bailey, but nothing about Potter other than what we see on screen. It would have been nice to learn something else about him, but we don’t. We don’t even get proper closure at the end. I’m not saying I’d have wanted to see a SNL-type ending, but I’d have hoped for something. But, in the end, It’s A Wonderful Life succeeds because of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, who are certainly one of the most watchable couples in movies history

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