Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #29
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart and Donna Reed
I thought I might do a blog post outlining my picks for winners in the Oscar categories, but I guess I'll wait until nominations are announced. Instead, I'll jump right into my next Top 250 film, #150 overall for me, leaving just 100 more posts after today. Tonight's movie I actually watched on Christmas Eve, along with the rest of America. It's a Wonderful Life has become just as associated with Christmastime in America as Santa Claus or Ebenezer Scrooge, even if it only partially takes place around the holidays. Clever marketing and a perennial primetime slot on network television has made sure that every American knows the name George Bailey and knows the lesson of his story. Despite religious undertones, it isn't truly a Christian movie, and its message is universal: Life is worth living, and everybody matters. It's a classic in every sense of the word, and it earns every ounce of the praise that has been heaped upon it in the half-century-plus since its release.
The movie's story is mostly told in the form of a series of flashbacks showing George Bailey's life, starting with a childhood accident that leaves him deaf in one ear and progressing through his life as the head of the Building and Loans office, the only organization standing in the way of a malicious bank that seeks to dominate his entire town. When it looks like his company, the driving force in every aspect of his life, is about to go under, Bailey contemplates suicide. He makes it all the way to the bridge he intends to throw himself off of when he crosses paths for the first time with his guardian angel, Clarence, who preempts Bailey's jump into the icy abyss with one of his own. Bailey reacts and saves Clarence from drowning, and that's when the movie really takes off – a sequence that lasts only its final fifteen minutes or so.
The closing sees Clarence taking George Bailey through his sleepy little burg to show him what it would be like if he had never been born. It's a unsubtle nod to A Christmas Carol, especially given the fact that it takes place on Christmas, but it works brilliantly for Capra. Bailey, of course, learns that he likes the world a lot better with himself in it, tells Clarence to fix things, and runs home appreciatively into the waiting arms of his children. The townspeople gather the money to keep his business' doors open, and everyone lives happily ever after. No man is a failure who has friends, Clarence's final message to George tells us, and the credits roll with every viewer's heart aflutter.
Sentimental value probably overrates this movie, as its position inside the list's top 30 reveals, but it's still extremely good. It's a relatively undaring, unchallenging film, but it's representative of some of what made Hollywood's Golden Era as golden as it was. Stewart gives one of his many brilliant performances and really plays George Bailey with the necessary nuance that keeps his backstory from seeming too schmaltzy. It's a holiday tradition, and rightly so.
The Good: The final 15-20 minutes.
The Bad: The scenes that apparently take place in Heaven, which are just shots of outer space.
The Skinny: Deserves to be on the list, even if I'm unsure about it's high placement.