It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Directed Frank Capra. Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers.
So intense is the finale of this picture that it is always a surprise to me that the sequence of this movie which everyone remembers – George’s breakdown, wish that he had never been born and nightmarish journey through Pottersville to that wonderfully iconic ending – only takes up a tiny fraction of the narrative.
Capra instinctively realises that the intense character study which marks most of the film is necessary to make you truly care for George Bailey when he begins to really go through hell towards the back end of the picture.
The consummate screen actor, Stewart’s range is terrific, convincingly portraying George at each stage of his journey. He can play happy, excited, responsible, lovelorn, tortured and frustrated with seeming ease, managing to portray a deep emotional complexity while still being utterly lovable. While Clarence is showing George the world in which he was never born he achieves quite startling levels of emotional intensity.
Donna Reed provides a wonderful counterbalance to Stewart, making it easy to see why George falls for her despite himself. The “seduction” scene between the two of them manages to be almost heart-breaking in its beauty yet torturous in its ramifications for George. Hollywood movie making rarely allows for the possibility that falling in love can be as wrenching as it is joyous but some fantastic direction from Capra and two stunning performances from his leads leave no doubt that it is that way for George and Mary.
The cinematography is exquisite, creating a Christmas idyll, with the snow falling on Bedford Falls contrasting wonderfully with the twisting emotions of our hero. All too often critics who aren’t particularly enamoured of Capra’s work see his movies as a simple defence of small-town values and idealism but really he wants us to remember that the smallest deeds can be meaningful and that living well and being a good person is arguably more fulfilling than being a great man in the eyes of the world.In the end, ordinary people, living quiet existences and with grand unfulfilled dreams, do great things every day. Humanity is interconnected in ways we are all too blind to see as we get caught up with our own troubles.
Simple things like adherence to a moral code, maintaining friendships and finding love are the most rewarding of all and true kindness and generosity towards your fellows will be remembered and repaid when you need it most.
It is an utterly triumphant work of art – funny, sad, passionate, heart-breaking, horrifying and joyous.