My Essentials: It’s A Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)

It’s A Wonderful Life was the first movie that made me cry. I’m sure that sounds slightly cliché because I bet tons of people sob their way through the Christmas Eve showing every year, but it was significant to me because I managed to go twenty one years and however hundreds of movies without shedding a single tear. That moment changed what I thought about classic film. Like many people, I have loved movies from an early age, but it was this moment where I found my niche. There was something so wholesome about that ending scene, the reason that film plays incessantly at Christmas time. When Harry Bailey toasts his “big brother George, the richest man in town,” that was it.

When I was working on my graduate statement of purpose earlier this year, I was given feedback that it needed more of a personal touch. It wasn’t supposed to be a laundry list of what I had done or accomplished, but a piece written with the intention of letting grad school committees know what drew me to film and my research interests. I decided to lead with It’s A Wonderful Life, because between that and Vertigo, I became interested in classic film.

It’s A Wonderful Life was both director Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart’s first film after serving in WWII. Stewart, who enlisted in the Army Air Corps, flew missions over Germany as a bomber pilot, as Capra became an expert in creating wartime propaganda with his film unit at the Army Signal Corps. Both men saw the full scope and sacrifice of the American war effort, and were changed by their experiences. The Common Man that Capra celebrated so often in his 1930s films, the one that was able to triumph over adversity through hard work and dedication to just principles, faced an uncertain outcome in the face of war, and later readjusting to civilian life.

Perhaps because of his experiences, Capra’s post-war work is darker than his pre-war efforts, and It’s A Wonderful Life reflects that. Bedford Falls isn’t like the other small-towns that Capra’s heroes come from, it becomes a trap for dreamer George Bailey. With each setback to George’s potential departure from Bedford Falls lingers the presence of the town scrooge, Mr. Potter, and this nearly drives George to suicide.

This is Jimmy Stewart’s iconic role, the one everyone knows him from. It’s a wonderful performance, one that fit his everyman mannerisms, his charm and grace. Underneath all of that is the darker side of Stewart. His overworked, disillusioned and disheartened George Bailey hints at the darker side of Stewart’s acting personality that would be more developed in the 1950s through his collaborations with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.

But in the end, it’s the film’s uplifting ending and overall message that keeps people coming back time after time. I unabashedly love this movie. Every time I see it I notice something new, and it never gets old. Capra mixes his story with touches of comedy, and each choice is masterful. One example of this is the phone scene between Mary and George, a tightly framed moment of romance that ends with George’s last attempt to refuse the girl he’s loved all along, as he knows marrying Mary means he’s stuck in Bedford Falls for good. It’s a passionate moment, simple in its staging, but carried by the performances of Stewart and Donna Reed. Capra ends it with Mary’s eavesdropping mother, shrieking with shock as she figures out her daughter is going to marry George and not rich Sam Wrainwright.  It’s a complete shift in mood from the moment before, but it doesn’t feel out of place or forced.

As many times as I’ve seen this film on my own, I’ve never had the chance to watch it in a theater setting with an audience. I was so excited to find a city north of where I live screening it in their renovated 1920s theater. The whole experience of watching a film changes when you are with an audience. When watching a classic film, there exists a mutual love of the movie, and you feed off of that energy. People laugh, cry, hold their breath together, and it becomes a communal experience. I loved the quiet moments, people engaged with the beautiful black and white images cutting through the dark theater.

The car Jimmy Stewart drove in It's A Wonderful Life

We also had an extra treat. The car Jimmy Stewart drove in the film is owned by a local couple, and they brought it down to the front of the theater for everyone to look at.

It was truly a wonderful experience. As the person who introduced the film tonight mentioned, it’s great to see so many people turn out to enjoy the film together, especially a movie that one can easily see each year on television. It’s a film that has I feel has aged gracefully; the issues faced by it’s characters still resonate strongly now, and people still find inspiration in it’s message. I owe so much to this film: my love of classic movies, my introduction to Jimmy Stewart, who in turn introduced to the great stars and directors he worked with, this blog and all the great people that make up the classic film community. So when asked what my favorite film is, I often answer It’s A Wonderful Life. When this film first came out, it was pretty much a flop, but Capra and Stewart both said it was their favorite film. I hope they were both able to see how people started to respond to it in later years, as beloved as it is now. It is simply a wonderful gift.

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