Let’s face it, you might be the biggest movie fan in the world but I can guarantee you haven’t watched every movie ever-made. For one reason or another sometimes even the biggest movie releases pass you by. Take one of mine for instance, just three days ago I managed to watch Die Hard for the very first time. Sure, I’d heard of it. I even knew most of the lines off by heart, but that was merely through other circumstances, like friends quoting lines or from one of the countless Christmas movie best of’s/countdowns through the years. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it took me almost 33 years to watch one of the biggest Christmas releases of modern times.
So I posed a question to the rest of the Filmoria gang, which massive films have shamefully passed them by. The answers were, frankly, astounding.
So here is the very first in a brand new line of Filmoria features, where Filmoria writers make the effort to seek out that all important missed movie and then write all about it. What better to get us going than one of the biggest Christmas movies, if not the biggest Christmas movie of all time! Here’s Peter Turner with his first thoughts of It’s A Wonderful Life – Richard Lennox, Editor
It’s a Wonderful Life is as wonderful, magical, syrupy sweet and emotionally engaging as any film you will ever see. If The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most popular films of all time it’s in no small part to its determined optimistic hero and the happy ending he receives. It’s A Wonderful Life deserves its place right beside it, as one of the most loved classics of all time!
It is a film that throws up the interesting and frankly daring (for the time) conflict between capitalism and individualism versus suspiciously Pinko Commie sounding ideals like community and caring for each other. With its central conflict between George Bailey and evil old Mr Potter, it deals with the opposing forces of greed and selflessness and individualism versus collectivism. It dares to posit a world where capitalism, selfishness and greed are the antagonist and the evil it inspires must be fought against by the ordinary working citizens of small-town America.
It tells the story of George Bailey who lives in the quaint little town of Bedford Falls from his childhood where he lost his hearing by saving his brother from drowning, to his married with children years working at the Building and Loan Association once owned by his father. His dreams of travel and escape are constantly thwarted by his selfless acts and the world seemingly conspiring to keep him in Bedford Falls. He even foregoes his own honeymoon when a crisis keeps him tied to the town.
In these times, it is easy to see James Stewart’s Bailey as an impossibly selfless bright shining star of small-town America. He is a true hero who puts his community above everything else; even it seems his own family and his own happiness. Stewart makes George incredibly sympathetic; the audience will fall in love with him just as the townspeople do. He may be desperate to see the world and occasionally dismissive of Bedford Falls but his heart is at home and his morals are faultless. But spare a thought for George’s wife Mary too whose own sacrifices go unheard in the film. Her suffering is silent as she watches George descend into despair and she can do little to help her husband.
It feels like a film of two halves where actually the final half is a lot shorter than it should be. The film is all set up. George’s life is chronicled from his early years as a boy working in a sweet shop and druggist to his life as a married man with children. Bedford Falls keeps its iron grip on him throughout despite his desperation to escape, travel and see the world. It is only in the closing half hour of the film that it takes a turn for the surreal, magical and extremely sentimental.
With the introduction of George’s guardian angel Clarence, the film becomes magical, spiritual and with its parallel universe, wonderfully grim. The picture painted of an alt-Bedford Falls where George never existed is bitter, hollow and steeped in degradation. This final part of the film is where all that set up finally pays off. No stone is left unturned as George races around the newly named Pottersville to find the devastating impact that his non-existence has had on all the people he cares about and the town as a whole.
It is a magnificent storytelling technique used to perfection except that it all feels a bit rushed. The pace in the film never sags, detailing so much of George’s life and never pausing for breath. However this final act with George and Clarence moves even faster than the rest of the film and there is not enough wallowing in the new sin city that Bedford Falls/Pottersville has become. That said the resolution as George returns to his normal life still packs a hell of an emotional wallop despite the short length of the magical interlude.
It is down to the phenomenal performance of James Stewart and the endless obstacles to his dreams being fulfilled that the ending manages to be so potent. He goes from an all-American optimistic and selfless hero to a tragic figure constantly dumped on by life that almost tears his family apart when it all gets too much. It is a heart wrenching presentation of a man who is so wonderful and noble that to see him watch his dreams disappear due to his own self-sacrifice is almost unbearable.
Fortunately by the end, it gets all wrapped up like a beautiful Christmas present; one of those ones that is so thoughtful and that you are truly so thankful for, that you might just find a large lump in your throat. Its message could not be clearer; if you are good to others, you will reap what you sow. Always be thankful for everything and everyone that you have in life… especially at Christmas.