Anthony's Film Review

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

For many reasons, It's a Wonderful Life is a truly timeless film...

It's a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, may be a film that was released in 1946, but chances are that you've at least heard of it. Movie lovers who discuss classic films are sure to bring up this one. And if you watch television in America around Christmas time, chances are that one channel is broadcasting this movie. The reasons are simple. It's a Wonderful Life is a well-written, visually breathtaking, and emotionally moving film that tells a memorable story, presents unforgettable characters, and explores timeless themes. It does what any great film should do, and I proudly stand by people who say that it's one of the greatest movies ever made.

Often, when I do a quick film review, I share a few details about the film and let the viewer discover the rest. But in the case of It's a Wonderful Life, I feel the need to share a whole lot more. There are so many great scenes, and they're not limited to specific sections of the film. They're spread throughout from beginning to end. Therefore, what I shall do now is summarize the entire story, highlighting moments that I could never forget and the messages that I took away. I'm doing this because I really love the movie, and I'm hoping that others will not miss their opportunity to see it if they haven't done so.

The beginning of the film is rather interesting. There are people praying for George Bailey (played by James Stewart), who is in trouble. The scene shifts, rather surprisingly, to a picture of stars in outer space. But it's not science-fiction, because what happens next is that two galaxies are flashing as they're talking to each other. They are actually unseen beings in heaven. Soon, a star moves into the picture and speaks. He is a guardian angel, and he is told that Mr. Bailey is on the verge of committing suicide. The angel has a chance to help someone in need, not to mention earn his wings as a reward.

We see George Bailey in his early life in the town of Bedford Falls. From the start, he is an admirable character. He saves his brother from drowning in an icy lake, prevents a druggist from accidentally mixing poison into a prescription, and takes a job at his father's loan bank, which is crucial to the town's economy. He does the latter even as he dreams of traveling, seeing the world, and perhaps building something great. Already, the film presents a conflict and a question. George gives up his own ambitions to help others, which sounds like a wonderful thing. So why should he give up on life many years later?

The answer lies with the film's antagonist: a greedy, heartless investor named Henry F. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore), who is akin to the character of Scrooge in Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. When George's father dies from a stroke, Potter attempts to seize the bank. George then faces another conflict. If he helps run the bank, he must still abandon his wish to travel the world, but he could keep the townsfolk financially stable. But if he refuses, Mr. Potter takes over, and that could be disastrous for all of Bedford Falls. It's quite an emotional issue, and certainly the themes of individualism and wealth versus sacrifice and the greater good come to mind.

While all of this is happening, George finds love in the beautiful Mary Hatch (played by Donna Reed). There is one great scene where George and Mary are at their high school dance in a gymnasium. They get so caught up in their dancing that they accidentally fall into a swimming pool. But instead of being frustrated, they continue to laugh and smile, and that inspires almost everyone else to jump into the pool with them. Later, the two get married and, because George has little money left by this point, have a honeymoon in an old house instead of a luxury hotel room. But at least the two are together. These scenes with Mary also point out that George has a wonderful life.

Pretty soon, George reaches a breaking point. His uncle attempts to deposit $8,000 but misplaces the cash. In fact, it accidentally winds up in the hands of Mr. Potter, who shamelessly pockets the money instead of honestly returning it. This leads to a potential bankruptcy crisis and a scandal for George, who soon gets drunk and tries to jump off a bridge. But he is saved by the guardian angel, who calls himself Clarence (played by Henry Travers). George wishes that he was never born, and with that, Clarence decides to grant him his wish to teach him a lesson.

George, with Clarence following behind, finds himself in an alternate world where he never existed. The town of Bedford Falls has become Pottersville with glitz and glamour but also sleaze and poverty. The people George has always known don't recognize him and are dramatically different, often for the worse. It's all because George has done very good things for these people. As Clarence points out, it sometimes takes a huge loss to see the value of what one has. Although this sequence is rather short compared to the whole film, it's still an impressive and ingenious way to get the message across. And when George is returned to his life, he has a fresh new perspective with optimism and love, not to mention an unexpected solution to his debt problem and a final message from Clarence: "Remember, no man is a failure who has friends."

As you can see, there is so much greatness in this movie that it's hard for a film lover like myself to resist giving away so much. If you have seen it already and love it (which I'm sure is true for many of you), I am glad to have experienced the same joy. If you haven't seen it, I hope this review convinces you to do so. Even though It's a Wonderful Life received five Academy Award nominations without winning any, don't let that discourage you. The acting, directing, writing, and everything else are just incredible, and the American Film Institute would later recognize the value of It's a Wonderful Life, ranking it #1 in its list of the 100 most inspiring films ("100 Years... 100 Cheers"). It's a Wonderful Life is really a wonderful classic, one that will last throughout the ages.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about It's a Wonderful Life, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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