Monday, April 23, 2018

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Liberty Films/ RKO Pictures
Director: Frank Capra

Academy Award for Technical Achievement

It is considered one of the most cherished motion picture classics of the holiday season, viewed annually during the time of the yuletide. Despite its staying power and the tall pedestal in which it sits in the hearts of and minds of countless viewers, and even its noted critical praise through award nominations, it was initially considered a failure, a flop that doomed a production company and its renowned director. In today’s world it graces the screens of many television once a year, as well as holiday rereleases with every Christmas season.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a fantasy comedy/drama about a disheartened businessman/family man who is visited by a guardian angel to manifest his importance by showing him a world where he never existed. George Bailey (James Stewart), an honest man and true friend to the community, had sacrificed his boyhood dreams of world travel and adventure to help save and run the family owned building and loan company in his quaint hometown of Bedford Falls. On Christmas Eve, his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces a large sum of the business’ finances, which looks to ruin the company, George, and the community he cares for, putting him on the brink of suicide. An angel looking to earn “his wings,” Clarence (Henry Travers), is sent to teach George that life is worth living, inspired to show him visions of the town if he had never been born.

George is shown a world where Bedford Falls comes under the control into the hands of his greedy professional rival, the miserly Henry Potter. In this town renamed Pottersville, his family and friends with a lack of kind hearted opportunity that would have been provided by George, sending many to despair. Distraught by the thought of everything he loved and cared for ruined, George is returned, renewed with a zest for life as he returns home to his wife, Mary (Donna Reed) and children. In a surprise George’s life of love and sacrifice is rewarded as the community pulls together to make up for the missing funds in a joyously emotional gathering to celebrate George and his impact on them all, ending with a hint that Clarence has earned his wings.

The film is a heartwarming tale that, albeit being a tad too much of Norman Rockwell-ian with a perfect view of love and community, it still manages to tug at the heart strings of many viewers. The film after all is a fantasy and captures the ideal world director Frank Capra wished things existed in, a common theme in many of his finest works. It is a refreshing thought to see people come together to help each other out, and to mix that in with the Christmas season in a Charles Dickens-style story brings it all together in a warm bundle to be enjoyed over and over as seen with the passage of time.

It’s a Wonderful Life was the product of Frank Capra’s small, independent studio, Liberty Films, a venture he hoped would give him greater creative control of his productions. The project would land in his lap as RKO, the studio which he was partnered with, sold him rights of the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Dorn Stern after being unable to form the story into a vehicle for Cary Grant. Capra, seeing appeal in the picture, had the story fleshed out and retitled, hurrying the feature for a Christmas 1946 release date.

Shot on sets within RKO’s lot, the film stars James Stewart in his returning role following his service time during World War II. Stewart was one of Capra’s favorite actors, carrying with him the common everyman style that appealed in his movies. Despite suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress from his service time, Stewart picks up where he left off in Hollywood as an actor that can be dramatic and funny, cynical while at times daffy, overall loving, but in moments can be filled with rage. His performance would not only reintroduce him to movie audiences, but earned him an Academy Award nod for Best Actor.

Much of the cast would not know it, but It’s a Wonderful Life would end up being what most of them would have their careers defined by. Donna Reed portrays the quiet, loving, and beautiful wife Mary, a small but dignified role that was turned down by many other leading ladies before she was cast. Lionel Barrymore, a veteran of stage and screen, portrays the movie’s villain in Mr. Potter, a character that takes from his variation of his Ebenezer Scrooge, which he was known to play regularly. So hobbled by this point in life that he is reliant to a wheelchair would make his performance seem even more menacing as a man with power despite not being physically imposing. Character actor Henry Travers, who plays the befuddled angel Clarence, had a long career all over Hollywood, but his performance here, which perfectly suits his meek style, would be the role that he would be best remembered for.

Also featured in the picture is Thomas Mitchell as the forgetful Uncle Billy in a typical character actor spot. Future Academy Award winner Gloria Grahame is featured as the alluring blonde bombshell of the town, a character that sets up a couple of humorous moments for George Bailey. A keen eye will note the appearance of Carl Switzer, the original Alfalfa of the famed “Our Gang” series, portraying a quick romantic rival for Donna Reed’s attention early in movie.

When It’s a Wonderful Life opened in December 1946, Frank Capra’s Christmas card to the movie world as it will, it would find itself in the heart of award season gaining five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing, and Best Sound Recording. It would see no wins from the major categories , but did received a technical award for its new process of creating snowfall effects, replacing the then popular yet very load use of painted corn flacks with something that resembled fire retardant foam fed through fans.

Despite the award nominations, critics generally had mixed to negative feelings for the picture. Many felt it was too squeaky clean of a dramatic story, finding it delusionary. Box office numbers where low for the picture as well, losing money for Liberty Films, eventually leading to its demise as it was sold off to Paramount Pictures and the film later resold to a small company thereafter. For a while the film gained scrutiny in the post-war United States with some seeing the picture in support of communist ideals, and demonizing US capitalism with the form of Mr. Potter. Director Frank Capra too would begin to see a decline in his career, never again to reach the heights of what he once had in Hollywood before.

With the rise of popularity for television in the following decades It’s a Wonderful Life, being seen as a flop in the theaters with little appeal for re-release, became one of the many movies that studios sold rights to play on television to fill broadcasting space. With its Christmas tones it was easy to place the picture airing during the holiday season. In the television age, It’s a Wonderful Life manifested its high quality production with a first rate cast, quickly becoming one of the best movies to play on the medium movie studios looked down on. With each year audiences would anticipate the re-airings of this Christmas classic, passing on the love for future generations.

With time It’s a Wonderful Life has gained a cult holiday following helping it to become one of the most cherished American motion pictures of all time, as listed by many publications and critics. The film’s impact if felt in popular culture, with even the famed children’s program led by master puppeteer Jim Henson, Sesame Street having two of its most popular characters, Bert and Ernie, named after two minor characters form this picture. With the overwhelming embrace of the film in history, it shows the film was the tragedy of timing as initial post-WWII audiences did not see the massive charm of the feature. It touches on the history of Great Depression as well as World War II’s impact on American communities in a matter that is dramatic and touching. Today it is hard not to come across the film at some point each December as the film continues the tradition of television airings and even special theater engagements as the film passes from generation to generation. Even with the Christmas season tie in set aside, the film a wonderful production that deserves praise for it heart and quality.

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