Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) - Jimmy Stewart Lasso's the Moon

Jimmy Stewart Shows It's A Wonderful Life

Its a Wonderful Life 1946 film poster
"It's A Wonderful Life" (1946).

"It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), directed by Frank Capra and starring the legendary Jimmy Stewart and classic 1940s housewife-representative , is the quintessential holiday Christmas drama film. Many families love to turn this on at some point during the holiday season and revel in the warmth of its humanity. "It's a Wonderful Life" has become an institution, replacing the earlier "Babes in Toyland" as the must-see film of the season. You can't go wrong with "It's a Wonderful Life," as it is practically a documentary on the Jimmy Stewart homespun view of the world where things turn out right if you just do the right things and try to be nice to people. A goodly portion of "It's a Wonderful Life" is in the form of a sort of flashback, so it can be confusing at first, but just stick with it.

Jimmy Stewart Its a Wonderful Life 1946
Jimmy Stewart in "It's A Wonderful Life," spinning tales on film as he no doubt did as a kid in his father's hardware store

Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey, a local banker in Bedford Falls, New York. Things have gone sour for George, and his friends and family worry about him. Their prayers reach into Heaven, where Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), "Angel Second Class," is ordered to set things  right. If he does this properly, he will earn his wings and no longer be Second Class. Prior to sending Clarence down to his assignment, though, head angels Franklin and Joseph review George's life with Clarence so he will know what to do to solve George's problems.

Lionel Barrymore Samuel S. Hinds Its a Wonderful Life 1946
Mr. Potter does not like Peter Bailey's Building & Loan in "It's A Wonderful Life."

George was a precocious child, saving the life of younger brother Harold (Todd Karns) while out skating. He also saved the local pharmacist, Mr. Gower, from mistakenly filling a prescription with a deadly poison because Mr. Gower was upset over the death of his son. These feats came with a price, though, because George lost the hearing in his left ear while saving his brother. As he grows up, George is ambitious and dreams big. While he works at his father's (Samuel S. Hinds) small savings & loan bank, George expects Harold to replace him once Harold graduates so that George can go off with buddy Sam Wainwright and conquer the world in New York City.

Jimmy Stewart Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"Yes, well... wait, what?"

Unfortunately for George, Harold goes off to college, leaving nobody else to help out with the family business. George does such a good job helping out that when his father has a stroke and dies, the board of directors of the bank say they will close it down, as demanded by majority shareholder (and the owner of rival interests) Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). The only way for the bank to survive is if George himself stays to run it. Reluctantly, George agrees to stay in Bedford Falls and give up his other career dreams until Harold returns and is ready to take over.

Jimmy Stewart Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"You're nothing but a warped, frustrated old man"

George is in love with Mary Hatch (Reed), a younger schoolmate who has a crush on him, but she goes away to college just as Harold does. When Harold finally graduates from college, he is married, and his wife's father has offered him a good job in the big city. While Harold is willing to give that up so that George can pursue his dream, George realizes it would be churlish to demand that of anyone, so he reluctantly agrees to continue at the bank indefinitely. Mary also returns from college, and George goes to see her, resisting the allure of another local girl (Gloria Grahame). After some flirting, George and Mary fall in love and marry.

Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Potter's office Its a Wonderful Life 1946
George never really did give up his dreams, but they are always dashed in "It's A Wonderful Life."

Just as George and Mary are leaving for their honeymoon, though, the bank has a problem. People are scared about its solvency - it was a time when runs on banks were common - and withdraw all their savings. George uses his honeymoon money to keep the bank in operation. Mary, assisted by friends Bert the policeman and Ernie the cabdriver, contrives an artificial honeymoon in Bedford Falls instead, understanding fully why they have to stay in town. She is the perfect 1940s wife, and because of her wisdom they survive the disaster. Life settles down, and they raise four children, Pete, Janie, Tommy and little Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes).

Thomas Mitchell reading to Lionel Barrymore Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"Say, did you see this front page article about George's brother Harold saving all  those lives?" Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore have an epic confrontation.

Bailey's polar antithesis throughout the story is Mr. Potter, the one who destroyed his dream of leaving town. Mr. Potter is old, crabby, crippled, sour, and thinks only of himself. He also happens to run the only other (apparently) bank in town. His plans for total domination (by way of foreclosing on everyone he can) and turning Bedford Falls into "Pottersville" are stymied only by Bailey's out-gunned building and loan, which operates on a financial thread so thin it could go out of business at any time. However, with George running the bank, the town prospers.

Jimmy Stewart Thomas Mitchell Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"Where's the money, you old fool?"

George still has big dreams, but he decides to play them out in Bedford Falls instead of the big city. He starts an affordable housing project, Bailey Park, which is funded with loans from his bank. This cuts into Mr. Potter's business. Potter is a slumlord who doesn't want people owning their own homes, because then they wouldn't rent from him. Potter appeals to George's greed, trying to lure him to work for him for a big salary with a lot of perks, but George turns the offer down flat when the realizes that this would leave Potter in sole control of the town. Then, nobody would be able to afford the American dream of owning their own home.

Jimmy Stewart Donna Reed Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"How dare you send my daughter home with her coat unbuttoned?"

World War II erupts, and Harold becomes a war hero, saving many lives as a fighter pilot. George, meanwhile is turned down for the chance at war service himself by Mr. Potter, who runs the draft board, because of his bad ear. George's Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), a very kindly if absent-minded man who helps George with bank affairs, on Christmas Eve goes to Mr. Potter's bank to deposit funds to make sure that George's bank is in compliance with all regulations before bank auditors arrive later in the day. Through sheer carelessness, Billy loses the money he was going to deposit by wrapping it in a newspaper, full of Harold's heroics, which he hands to Mr. Potter to read. Potter keeps the newspaper and the newspaper, realizing the consequences, and Billy later can't figure out where the money went.

Henry Travers and Jimmy Stewart Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"Thanks for saving me, George"

George, desperate and not knowing the circumstances, pleads with Potter for help to save his bank, which will go under (and send George to jail) without the money that Billy lost. Potter not only refuses, but, as a stockholder in George's bank, calls the police on him. George runs out, goes to his friend Martini's bar to get drunk, crashes his car into a historic tree, and then decides everything is hopeless and wanders to a local bridge to commit suicide.

Jimmy Stewart and Henry Travers Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"There's no Martini here, I'm Nick, this is my place." 

Being fully prepared now, Clarence shows up in the nick of time and jumps into the freezing river himself, pretending to be drowning. Good-hearted George can't help himself, and he jumps in himself, not to kill himself, but to save Clarence. Clarence then arranges things so that Bedford Falls existed as if George never was born, and he takes George on a tour. The town name has changed to Pottersville, it is full of garish seedy bars and pawn shops, and Mary never married. Mr. Gower went to jail for killing his patient and is a broken man, George's childhood friend Violet is a stripper, and Uncle Billy was committed to an insane asylum. Harold, meanwhile, died in the pond while skating, and the servicemen he saved in the Pacific all died as well.

Jimmy Stewart Its a Wonderful Life 1946
Jimmy Stewart could be very expressive when he wanted, and he does it often in "It's A Wonderful Life."

Seeing the disasters that would have happened without him, George changes his mind about suicide and returns home. The bank examiners indeed found the discrepancy and are ready to arrest him, but all of Bedford Falls turns out with donations to save George and the bank for all the good work they have done in the community. Friend Sam Wainwright, with whom George was going to leave town and "lasso the Moon," even hears about it in the big city and wires more than enough money to cover all of the missing funds, while brother Harold arrives home for Christmas and toasts George as "the richest man in town." As the film closes, a bell on the Christmas tree rings, and little Zuzu mentions that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.

Bailey home derelict Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"Nobody has lived here in a very long time, George"

There is nothing even-handed about "It's a Wonderful Life." There is saintly George, who should have Angel wings even before he ever gets to Heaven, and evil Mr. Potter, who does everything to foil George that he can. "It's a Wonderful Life" is based on a short story by called "The Greatest Gift." When Van Doren couldn't get it published, he simply sent it as a Christmas card to his friends in 1943. The amazing card came to the attention of executives at RKO Pictures, and they bought the rights for Cary Grant, who ultimately couldn't make the film due to another commitment ("The Bishop's Wife"). That film, incidentally, was a big hit and much more prominent during its run. Over time, though, 'The Bishop's Wife' has become largely forgotten except to film buffs while 'It's a Wonderful Life' lives on and on. Just shows how things change.

Jimmy Stewart Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"Please let me go back to my old life"

The beauty of "It's a Wonderful Life" is that it perfectly mirrored an idyllic view of America at that time, like a snapshot taken by Currier & Ives. It was so true-to-life of that time, in fact, that "It's a Wonderful Life" did not find an audience and failed completely and miserably at the box office. It's themes about the glories of going off to World War II and all the good that did for others was something that people of the time did not want to dwell upon any longer, and moviegoers busy financing their own new homes weren't interested in a story about the guy who was lending them the money. The FBI even became suspicious of the filmmakers' motives, investigating whether there was any subversive intent behind its discrediting of bankers. Walt Disney, in particular, is said to have had issues with the film, Communists being a particularly sensitive subject with him because of all the trouble they had stirred up in his animation studio. Frank Capra, the film's director, screenplay contributor and whose production company Liberty Films made it, was also claimed to have had sympathies somewhere in that direction. His views now no doubt would be considered comfortably mainstream. Capra made a point of loading the script with Christmas sentiments that are more or less explicitly religious when he didn't really have to, so it is likely that he felt his spiritual side deeply, or at least had no issues with catering to the public's own inclinations in that direction.

Jimmy Stewart and bank examiners Its a Wonderful Life 1946
"I don't care if you arrest me, life is wonderful!"

Of course, times changed, but "It's a Wonderful Life," with its frozen-in-amber portrayal of simple homespun American goodness and the roots of the great American tree that grew during the post-war period, didn't. It gradually became more interesting as its simple moral virtues and homespun philosophy became less common. Eventually, "It's a Wonderful Live" became exotic and even intoxicating for an increasingly wealthy and jaded America which in some small ways was losing its direction. The aspects of "It's a Wonderful Life"'s that upon its release seemed prosaic suddenly seemed archetypal and irreplaceable, like a family Bible or family wedding gown. By the 1970s, the film had found its audience, and annual showings on the major television networks began.

Todd Karns  Its a Wonderful Life 1946
Harold Bailey, home from the war.

There absolutely is no question that "It's a Wonderful Life" is one of the finest films ever made, and Jimmy Stewart carried the whole thing on his own broad shoulders. What helps make it so sincere is that the people behind "It's a Wonderful Life" actually at one point lived the quaint, classical upbringing they portrayed on screen. Donna Reed, at Lionel Barrymore's instigation, actually showed that she knew how to milk a cow from her childhood on set. Jimmy Stewart was the son of a small hardware store owner, in which he had worked as a young man. There was a lot less pretence or "acting" in making this film than would ever be the case today. The attitudes and concerns addressed in "It's a Wonderful Life" will never be duplicated, because today some sarcasm or jokes or pontificating or mealy-mouthed equivocating would be inserted so that nobody would be seen as actually taking a stand about anything that could be challenged. Capra's genius was that he was unafraid to paint in vivid, stark blacks and whites, while leaving the greys for lesser filmmakers. If you want to look for something this film represents that has been lost, you can start right there, my friend.

The Baileys at the Christmas tree Its a Wonderful Life 1946
George, Mary and Zuzu provide a memorable conclusion to "It's A Wonderful Life."

Everybody loves "It's a Wonderful Life," and with good reason. You owe it to yourself to see it over the holiday season.

Below is the original trailer.

The Its a Wonderful Life 1946 film poster


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