By Brian Lafferty
January 23, 2012 (San Diego) – The last few years have been rough on a lot of people. People have lost their jobs, they don’t know how to support themselves and their families, and I’m sure there are those who, like George Bailey, wish they had never been born.
It’s movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, now available in a fantastic Blu-Ray set, that remind us that as hopeless as some of our current situations may seem, we still have a lot of support, even though we may not recognize it. There’s a reason that this film made number one on American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Cheers list. Many, actually. It’s way too easy to say it’s timeless and inspirational, but in these tough times, it’s timely.
The movie opens with the voices of the friends and family of George Bailey (James Stewart) praying for him. Listening from high in the heavens are two angels. They assign an angel named Clarence to save George. If successful, he earns his wings. Much of the movie entails Clarence learning George’s life story.
George wants to travel the world but circumstances force him to stay in his hometown. He almost loses his father’s loan company to a near-bank run and all hope is seemingly lost when his uncle later misplaces the money that keeps the business alive. Despondent, he contemplates suicide until Clarence intervenes. When George wishes he had never been born, his wish is granted. Then George learns, to his horror, that everybody’s lives are changed for the worse. Only the town’s powerful, miserable miser Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) benefits from George’s nonexistence by turning the small, family-friendly suburb into a red-light district replete with strip clubs.
James Stewart delivers a homespun performance. As loveable as a Ragdoll kitten, he’s the type of character you truly feel for and absolutely hate to see bad things happen to. At the beginning he’s idealistic and dreamy. He has all these plans to travel the world but he’s thwarted at every turn just when things get good. I felt his frustration.
By the end, he’s depressed and dejected. Even though he takes his frustration of apparently losing his business out on his wife and kids, he’s incapable of expressing his true feelings. He went through so much and triumphed over every attack, only to face the likelihood of losing his house and family.
The supporting cast complements Stewart’s noble, “good guy” performance with their own distinct ones. Donna Reed is a kind, sensitive soul. Whereas George is incapable of honestly expressing love (pay attention to the scene where he proposes, which is tender and sweet), she always knows how to show it. Her soft voice, gentle nature, and perpetually happy mood contrast with George’s uptight, worked-up, “aw shucks” demeanor. Lionel Barrymore is a curmudgeonly, bitter miser. He’s not totally dislikeable, though. In a lot of ways, he’s not really the “bad guy.” He plays it like he’s just doing business and needs the money.
The Blu-Ray set comes with both the black and white and colorized version. Being a proponent of seeing films the way they were originally shot, stick with the former. Paramount has done an extremely commendable job restoring the film. It’s as crisp as any black and white film I’ve seen on Blu-Ray.
It’s a Wonderful Life is sentimental and endearing. Over the decades, it became a holiday staple on television. Interestingly, it isn’t a holiday movie. I believe it plays a lot during the Christmas season because Christmas is a time of hope and happiness, even during the worst of times.
A Paramount Home Entertainment release. Director: Frank Capra. Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling. Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker. Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, and Beulah Bondi. 130 minutes. Unrated.
Brian Lafferty can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.