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It's a Wonderful Life Movie Review

george frank capra bailey

1946 – Frank Capra –

Suicide and Christmas—two staples of Frank Capra's film world—produce an even better mix in this classic than in Meet John Doe. How does Capra pay faithful service to both the spirit of Yuletide and fantasy and that of frustration and despair? Much of it comes through his Everyman hero George Bailey (James Stewart). George's deep fear of mediocrity keeps him from seeing that his essential worth lies in the very qualities often mistaken for mediocrity—simple decency, an understanding of fairness, and genuine care for others. Like his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), for whom the first half of the movie is a crash course on who George is, the audience comes to like George Bailey.

He has always wanted to escape his little home town of Bedford Falls, see the world, and accomplish great things. Instead, his frustrations and fear of anonymity mount while he watches his brother (Todd Karns) get the college education he longed for and then receive even more of the spotlight for his wartime heroics. Neither has George excelled in business like Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson). The sudden death of his father (Samuel S. Hinds) has saddled him to the family's two-bit building and loan, seemingly the community's only alternative to the tightfisted business practices of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George has married the girl-next-door, Mary (Donna Reed), rather than Violet (Gloria Grahame), the potential trophy wife. George's forte, in short, lies not so much in doing great things as in preventing bad things: as a boy, he saves the druggist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from a fatal mistake in filling a prescription, and he pulls his little brother out of the icy water of a frozen pond. On his wedding day he and Mary donate their life savings to stave off a run on the family business. But George isn't around to prevent his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) from losing the building and loan's assets on the eve of the bank examiner's visit. George turns to his nemesis for help, but Potter only gloats that George is worth more dead than alive. A lifetime of unfulfilled ambitions and perceived failures thus sends George out to the snowy bridge to take Potter's hint.

One of Capra's great gifts was finding the heroic in unexpected places. George isn't ordinary, but nobody has any trouble in understanding why he thinks he is. The audience comes to adopt the view of Clarence and heaven. We see how all the unspectacular life choices that establish George's heroism have also conspired to rob him of any sense of accomplishment. In the “unborn sequence,” as the filmmakers called it, Clarence shows George the corrupted picture of Bedford Falls if he had never lived, but the real miracle comes when George returns home and finds his house clogged with singing friends, family, and neighbors chipping in to cancel George's debt. George Bailey is the ideal hero for all of us who feel unappreciated, unfulfilled, unrecognized.

A box-office disappointment (it lost money), the movie was revived on television, becoming a Christma Eve tradition. The script was based on Philip Von Doren Stern's short story “The Greatest Gift.” Originally, the story was purchased by RKO for Cary Grant. Capra always wanted Stewart, who had just returned from the war. Stewart is supported by a strong ensemble, each of the performances ringing true.

Cast: James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Bailey), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Lionel Barrymore (Potter), Henry Travers (Clarence Oddbody, angel second class), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), H. B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Sheldon Leonard (Nick), Gloria Grahame (Violet), Ward Bond (Bert), Frank Faylan (Ernie), Samuel S. Hinds (Mr. Bailey), Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Virginia Patton (Ruth Dakin), Sarah Edwards (Mrs. Hatch, Mary's mother), William Edmunds (Mr. Martini), Argentina Bruneti (Mrs. Martini), Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu), Carol Coombs (Janie), Frank Hagney (Potter's bodyguard), Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer (Freddie), Harry Holman (high school principal), Charles Halton (bank examiner) Screenwriter: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling Cinematographer: Joseph Walker, Joseph Biroc Composer: Dmitri Tiomkin Producer: Frank Capra for Liberty Films Running Time: 129 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Golden Globe Awards, 1947: Director (Frank Capra); Academy Awards, 1946: Nominations: Picture, Director (Frank Capra), Actor (James Stewart), Editing, Sound Budget: $3.7M Box Office: $3.3M.

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