Favorite Quote: You… you said… what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?
I don’t keep an official list or anything, but I can think of only a handful of movies, off the top of my head, that are as near to perfect as they can be – that I can watch and re-watch anytime and any place. Wizard of Oz, Princess Bride, Bringing Up Baby, Shawshank Redemption, and It’s A Wonderful Life are among that handful.
Although it wasn’t originally intended as such, It’s a Wonderful Life is, for me, the perfect Christmas film. It encapsulates everything that the season means for me, and exemplifies all the things I like to reflect upon as one year closes and another begins – namely that family and friends are the foundation of life and everything else is just veneer and varnish. The emotional connections we make in life are what gives life its meaning and purpose.
Having said all that, it was with some anxiety that I took Izzy to see this yesterday. It’s so hard sharing a favorite book or movie with someone you love. It’s like sharing a little piece of yourself. What if they hate it? It’s a corny old black and white movie and she is only 12 after all. What if she’s bored out of her mind?
I needn’t have worried. First, the theatre was pleasantly full of a diverse crowd – older couples, teenagers, families, etc. There was also a general feeling of cheerful festiveness in the air – probably due more in part to the impending holiday than the movie, but never mind that. But even during the movie everyone was clearly reacting to and *feeling* what it had to tell us about life and love†. As the final scene faded to black, everyone clapped and Izzy turned to me and whispered, ‘I LOVED THAT!’ as I was not-so-subtly wiping away the tears streaming down my cheeks.
†I read after writing this that director, Frank Capra, really believed in the powerful magic of the shared experience of seeing a film in the theatre.
In past movie reviews, I’ve focused on characters and the actors who play them, but I won’t do that today because a) it’s my blog and I do what I want and b) Jimmy Stewart freaking owns this movie. That’s not to say there aren’t some fabulous and memorable auxiliary characters – Uncle Billy (and his raven!) and the wingless angel Clarence to name a few – but this is truly and deeply Stewart’s movie. He steals every single scene he’s in, and so I’ll be talking about some of my favorite scenes and what they mean to me.
The Pharmacy Scene
Yes, I realize this scene doesn’t even have Jimmy in it, but this kid they got to play young George was really something special. Not only was he absolutely adorable (I had the HUGEST crush on him as a kid), but he plays his scenes with remarkable confidence and emotional depth.
In this particular scene, sensitive little George immediately notices something amiss with Mr. Gower, his boss at the pharmacy. Mr. Gower has received news of his son’s death via telegram and in a haze of grief and alcohol has made a fatal mistake with a prescription. George knows he can’t deliver the medicine, but he’s feels unequal to dealing with such a heavy situation so he heads to his father for help. This is a pivotal moment for George because he finds his father is too busy to help and he must handle the situation on his own. We get the feeling that this is a unique circumstance and that the elder Mr. Bailey has been a wise counselor for young George many times up to now. George returns to the pharmacy with the prescription undelivered where he must face Mr. Gower’s heartbroken wrath, and boy is it ugly…
Once Mr. Gower realizes what he’s done, he’s absolutely devastated and deeply ashamed. However, George knows that Mr. Gower wasn’t in his right mind and swears to never tell and he never does. At the tender age of 12 George knows that nothing good would come of revealing Mr. Gower’s mistake, that none of us should ever be defined by our lowest moment. Another sweet thing to notice is that the only other person in the pharmacy is young Mary and she clearly kept the secret too.
George and Mary’s Phone Scene
I remember as a kid being completely overwhelmed by George’s passionate turmoil in this scene, and quite frankly I still am! It’s another critical moment for George as he must choose between his heart and his head once and for all. George’s head has always wanted out of Bedford Falls to travel and get an education, but his big ol’ heart always sucks him back in for one reason or another. Prior to arriving at Mary’s, George has learned that his latest plans to escape Bedford Falls have been thwarted once again. His deep feelings for Mary are just another thing tethering him to this town he believes he wants to escape so badly. So he arrives at her house already agitated while at the same time realizing that his fate is about to be sealed forever.
Mary, on the other hand, is all brightness and light. Mary has none of George’s inner conflict. She’s loved George since that day at the pharmacy – perhaps even longer. His arrival represents the realization of her deepest wish to finally settle down in Bedford Falls with George. So imagine her surprise and disappointment when he shows up full of barely contained belligerence and resentment. Donna Reed plays this scene so beautifully. You can see the crushing hurt on her face as she starts to believe that George seemingly doesn’t share her feelings. And then, bless him, ‘Hee-Haw’ Sam Wainwright calls at just the right moment!
George has been told that Sam is a suitor of Mary’s, but literally everyone else on the planet (including Sam) knows that Mary only has eyes for George. In that moment, however, George realizes that he can’t live without Mary. The idea angers and overwhelms him at first and he shouts at her, “And I don’t want to get married ever to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do!” And then in the next moment they melt into a passionate embrace. It gets me every freaking time!
The Bank Run Scene
George and Mary have just gotten married and they have a big wad of cash for their honeymoon. George may be stuck in Bedford Falls for good now, but at least he’ll get to see a bit of the world with Mary…or will he? Just as they’re heading out of town, George notices a commotion down the street. Mary begs him not to go, but we know by now that George can never ignore people in need.
George runs to the Building & Loan to find Uncle Billy hiding in his office from the panicked crowd outside. They all want their shares withdrawn and they want them now! George tries to explain that this isn’t possible as their money is tied up in loans and housing projects around town, but they won’t listen. Some are saying they’ll just go to the opportunistic Mr. Potter who’ll buy their shares at 50 cents on the dollar. Then Mary, who I’m just starting to see is maybe the real hero of this film, holds up the cash for their honeymoon and she and George offer their own money as loans to allay the panic.
It’s a beautiful example of calm, patience and generosity saving the day. George understands the townspeople’s fear, but he doesn’t completely give in to it. Furthermore, he sacrifices his own desires to give them all a little peace of mind. I also love how he doesn’t even question Mary’s decision to offer up their honeymoon cash. He knows its the right thing to do and he just goes with it.
The Family Scene
This is possibly one of the most simultaneously heartbreaking and hysterical scenes in the history of cinema. George has just had the worst day of his life. Uncle Billy has lost an $8,000 deposit. George believes the Building & Loan – the institution his father built and the only thing protecting the town from Mr. Potter’s greed – is about to go under. Add to that he’s facing financial ruin, scandal and maybe even prison. Finally, after pointlessly and humiliatingly groveling to the loathsome Mr. Potter, George arrives home to his cozy home full of love and warmth and he JUST CAN’T. It only increases his shame and fear and he completely lashes out. It’s just so real and raw, but you also can’t help but laugh a bit at his outburst as he grasps at things to criticize about his ridiculously charming family. And the kids, sheesh, where did they find these adorable, earnest little actors? They’re just perfect.
Gosh, I could go on and on about this movie and, trust me, others have. There are entire books written about this movie. It really is something special. It’s become so ubiquitous, much like A Christmas Carol, that it’s in danger of seeming cliché, but I believe it should be required watching this time of year or anytime really.
Title: It’s a Wonderful Life
Genre: drama, fantasy, holiday, comedy, family
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars