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It’s A Wonderful Life

its-a-wonderful-lifeOk, I’m a sap, I admit it. I can’t help it. A really good movie or tv show can put a lump in my throat pretty quickly. I tell my wife I’m in touch with my feelings because we watch a lot of the Lifetime channel. But in reality it’s always been this way. I’m thinking it is genetic.

I remember watching The Waltons with my parents the night the show paid tribute to Grandpa Walton (after Will Geer died) and I happened to see my father wipe away a tear. He tried to hide it, but I saw it and it helped me realize that it was ok for guys to have emotions even if only occasionally. “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) is the only movie that gets to me everytime I watch it. I don’t even have to watch the whole movie, just the last 9 minutes or so can do it.

I can’t tell you when I first saw this movie, but I must have been pretty young because I think I’ve seen it about 100 times by now. I recently wrote an article about an earlier Frank Capra movie named “Meet John Doe” and I highly recommend watching both of these movies back to back. Frank Capra was a great director who understood how to weave populist messages with Christian values and do it in a secularistic way without being preachy. Capra also had a knack for getting the best possible performances out of two of the greatest “common man” actors, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart.

Capra was born in Sicily in 1897 and migrated to the United States with his family in 1903. He became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in 1920. He began working as a prop man in movies and soon was writing and directing silent comedies with Harry Langdon and the “Our Gang” kids. Many great actors owed their early success to Capra including Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck and Donna Reed. Capra’s 1934 movie, “It Happened One Night” was the first movie to ever win all of the top 5 honors including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. All in all, Capra won 3 Academy Awards for Directing. And had 3 additional nominations including one for “It’s A Wonderful Life”.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” has been named one of the best films ever made by the American Film Institute, and although the movie was considered a box-office failure, it has found a home in the hearts of people of all ages. I have some concerns about its on-going status since copyright issues have prevented many cable networks from showing the film during the holidays. Currently, it is still being shown, but usually only a couple of times each year. While I hate this, I also realize that it is possible to oversaturate too. Just take a look at how many times per year “A Christmas Story” is played. I love this movie too, but it is playing constantly during Christmas. (Though I have to admit that it just isn’t the holidays for me until I see Ralphie beat up the bully and lose the lugnuts in the snow!)

Frank Capra died of a heart attack at the age of 94 in 1991 and his legacy was providing a template for “feel good” movies. And the whole world is a little bit better for his sometimes corny, often uplifting style of filmmaking. “It’s A Wonderful Life” has been particularly instructive to me and it meant a lot to me even when I was younger. The message that a person’s wealth should be measured by the friends they surround themselves with is relevent even today. The older I get and the stronger the bonds of my friendships grow, the more aware I am of the importance of my friends and their impact on my life.

Spoilers follow…

“It’s A Wonderful Life” is the life story of George Bailey. It is a biography of a fictional character narrated by angels who are educating an angel named Clarence who is trying to earn his wings. Clarence has been assigned to George as his guardian angel and as angels go, Clarence is pretty low on the totem pole. The movie actually takes place on Christmas Eve, but the first 2/3’s of the movie is made up of flashbacks telling George’s life story and the events leading up to the moment on Christmas Eve when Clarence actually prevents George from committing suicide by jumping into the freezing river that runs next to the little town of Bedford Falls, George’s home town. George was born, raised and will likely die in Bedford Falls, even though he had big dreams of travelling and getting away from the little one-horse town.

George married his childhood sweatheart named Mary Hatch and they have four children including Zuzu, George’s “little ginger snap” (this name is a reference to a real life product called Zuzu Ginger Snaps. George’s grand dreams for his life always seem to be just out of reach. Everything seems to be out of George’s control because each time his dreams appear to be coming true, he is forced to put them on hold for the good of his family, or his business, or his town or his friends, or even for strangers. In spite of this George is a fairly happy person on the outside, but on the inside, he grows older always wishing for something better or at least different and it eats at him. During his adult life, George has been managing the family business, a building and loan company, and has helped hundreds of towns people access their dreams of owning businesses, or homes. He helps stem the tide of fear during during the crash of ’29 by giving up all of his honeymoon money to stop a run on the bank. As a child he prevents his brother from drowning at the cost of his own hearing. He lives in a drafty old house at the same time he helps his customers buy brand new homes. He gives up his chance to go to college and sends his brother instead. George sacrifices all that he dreams of in order to help others and in the end his anger which he has turned inward brings him to the brink.

In one of my favorite scenes, Jimmy Stewart nails the despair and stress of George while praying in Martini’s bar. Pay attention the next time you watch the movie and notice the stark difference in the photography in this scene and you’ll see that the film is slightly out of focus around the edges and the pictures are very grainy. Years ago, I head that this particular scene was shot during a rehearsal and Stewart’s performance was so good, Capra kept this footage even though there were technical issues with it. While writing this article, I learned that Stewart actually broke down and cried during this take only and Capra zoomed in photographically to reframe the shot and capture the tears on Stewart’s face. Either way, I personally think it makes the whole moment more real, believable and emphasizes George’s depression. Stewart gets so into the moment, he loses himself and he IS George.

Shortly after this moment George wishes he was never born and the movie takes a darker tone. Up to this point, everyone in the film has been happy except for George. Clarence decides that George’s wish to have never been born is exactly what George needs to see. Clarence grants his wish and shows him what the world would have been like had George never been born. I think deep down everyone has wondered what the world would be like without them. I know I’ve thought about it before. If you watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” it is almost impossible not to. And in the end, I believe this is exactly the question Frank Capra wanted everyone to ask of themselves when they see the movie. The truth is that you can never know exactly how you affect the lives of other people, and because of that you have a responsibility to try to leave a good mark. People you never know may be affected by the decisions you make about your own life. I’ve often thought that we never know if the old lady driving slowly in front of us is actually preventing us from being in an accident at the next traffic light because someone is going to run a redlight. We will never know if a kind word from us will prevent someone from doing themselves harm. It is actually very hard to get your mind around the concept, but the world with its billions of people would be radically different without you in it. I know it seems arrogant to think that, but just think of loved ones that have passed on and realize how much you miss them and I think you’ll get a sense of the enormity of the message Frank Capra was trying to send in this movie.

After George sees the world without him in it, he begins to understand that he is important and his tiny little part in this great, big world matters. George can only take a little bit of the world without him (especially after he learns what happens to Mary!) before he wants to be alive again and prays, “I want to live again!” It is interesting to note how Capra shows you that George is alive again. It is snowing heavily during George’s initial crises of faith, but all during the time George doesn’t exist it isn’t snowing. However, the instant the world is put right, the snow begins to fall again. This is actually the first film ever to demonstrate this particular movie technique and it has the official name: the “butterfly effect”. The idea comes from Chaos theory that something as simple as a butterfly flapping its wings can affect the weather. I’m pretty sure that Frank Capra was not aware of Chaos Theory since it hadn’t been articulated in 1946, but his point was to show that George’s absence actually affected the physical world. It was also a very effective way to show George’s trip through time and his return to ‘real’ life.

I’m going to show the last 9 minutes of the movie rather than tell you about it. All you need to know at this point is that George is in deep trouble with the law and they are about to arrest him.

George’s nemisis in this movie, Mr. Potter is played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore. It’s interesting to note that Mr. Potter never gets his due and he is never caught for his mis-deeds. But you are left with the sense that since Potter has no friends and no one loves him, Capra believes this is the worst punishment anyone could receive. Capra seems to say there is a justice in the world greater than that the government can mete out. Capra uses the same device in “Meet John Doe” and it is clear that Capra firmly believed that at least when it comes to God, justice is in good hands.

Watch this movie if you don’t watch any other movie this year. Pay attention to the details, Capra will surprise you again and again. Then watch it a second time and just feel the movie and let it happen to you, it might just change how you see your impact on the world around you. That could be a good thing and could make your life wonderful too.

Some trivia about the film:

  • This was Jimmy Stewart’s first big movie since returning from serving in World War II and he was nervous about his first on-screen kiss with Donna Reed, but it was such a passionate kiss, Capra had to edit it to get it past the censors.
  • Listen for Martini when he brings in the money from the “juka-box.”
  • “It’s A Wonderful Life” is loosely based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” written by Philip Van Doren Stern.
  • In 1990, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.
  • Though denied by Jim Henson, there have been persistent rumors that Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street were named after the policeman and taxicab driver in the film.
  • When George decides to live, he runs through the streets of Bedford Falls wishing walkers, “Merry Christmas!” and shouting at all of the buildings. The movie playing at the old theater is “The Bells Of St. Mary.” Henry Travers who plays Clarence in this movie also starred in “The Bells Of St. Mary.”
  • In one scene, Donna Reed was required to throw a rock through the window of the old house Mary and George would eventually live in. Capra hired an expert to throw the rock for Donna, but she amazed everyone and hit the window perfectly.
  • “It’s A Wonderful Life” cost $3.7 million to produce and only made $3.3 million in its initial run.
  • Jimmy Stewart cited George Bailey as his favorite character.
  • This movie was Donna Reed’s first starring role.
  • Frank Capra often said that this was his favorite of all his films.
  • Although the story is set at Christmas, it was actually filmed during a heat wave. If you look closely in the scenes of Jimmy Stewart at the bridge, you can see him visibly sweating.
  • Because Capra wanted to avoid over-dubbing the dialogue, the props department developed a soap-based fake snow to replace the old method of painting corn flakes white because the corn flakes crunched under foot and made too much noise. The technique won many awards and was used for many years after this film.

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