It certainly is. Especially with Christmas in the offing. Capra warms the cockles of our hearts with this much loved classic as Charles Dickens did a century earlier. Angels and Christmas are now packaged as Christmas spirit comes by an act of will as shallow as a smile. Yet new generations are added to the ideas of self-sacrifice and reward, and an oh so happy ending that could bring any suicide back from the brink. No small achievement if this were true?
Angels are discussing George Bailey (James Stewart), a small town savings and loan proprietor. Life is getting him down and he’s thinking of ending it all. His childhood dreams of travelling the world and doing great things have not been fulfilled.
I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
He had to sacrifice his chance of going to college for his brother and despite his own aspirations he ended up marrying his childhood sweetheart (Donna Reed) and running the family business in Bedford Falls. Now, thanks to his absent-minded uncle unwittingly giving a pile of money to an unscrupulous banking rival, he’s got money problems and is ready to throw himself from a bridge.
Enter his appointed guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), a trainee hoping to win his wings. Clarence shows George what a terrible place Bedford Falls would be if it hadn’t been for George and his string of good deeds. He’s saved lives, protected the town from the money grubbing banker Potter (Lionel Barrymore), built decent homes for folk and so on and so on.
When, after Clarence’s intervention, George returns home, the townsfolk are there with thousands of dollars from their savings, just to save George from going to jail. He is back with his family. It’s lovely. A bell tinkles on the Christmas tree.
Zuzu his daughter says: Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.
George (grinning): That’s right, that’s right. (He congratulates Clarence, looking upward and giving a wink.) Attaboy, Clarence.
Corny eh? But George has found his own rewards and gifts – life, redemption, and freedom. The swelling sounds of Auld Lang Syne build to a crescendo in an affirmation of life. [The film originally ended with 'Ode to Joy.']
The film doesn’t pretend to be arty or of highbrow. It is as honest as a fart and Frank Capra knew how it could be done as natural without offending the fine sensibilities of others. I mean he let the reprehensible act of Potter, despite stealing money from the Bailey Building and Loan go unpunished — something unusual for the average Hollywood movie at the time. The inclusion of this sop to popular hypocricy would have diluted the film message. Our lives like that of George touch everyone else’s. How the good or bad is repaid is subjective and Capra simply told a story intelligently and straight to the heart.
This film bombed at the box office which is probably why it won no Oscars despite 5 nominations. Repeated holiday TV showings from the sixties onwards hammered home the point. A lot of people like it now.
This is a film that people either love or hate… it’s an unashamed statement to the innate goodness of human nature or alternatively it’s sentimental goo.
~ Barry Norman, 100 Best Films of the Century
George Bailey: James Stewart
Mary Hatch: Donna Reed
Mr. Potter : Lionel Barrymore
Uncle Billy : Thomas Mitchell
Clarence: Henry Travers
Mrs. Bailey : Beulah Bondi
Ernie: Frank Faylen
Bert: Ward Bond
Violet Bick: Gloria Grahame
Mr. Gower : H.B. Warner
Sam Wainwright : Frank Albertson
* Best Picture
* Best Actor (James Stewart)
* Best Director(Frank Capra)
* Best Sound Recording (John Aalberg)
* Best Film Editing (William Hornbeck)
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