Reel Matt

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It's a Wonderful Life

Film #180


An angel helps a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman by showing what life would have been like if he never existed.

Year 1, Day 176

BEFORE: I have chosen It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic holiday film, to complete my holiday chain and bring me into a two day break for Christmas. I remember watching this film way back in elementary school but pretty much the only thing I remember is we got the Technicolor version instead of the original black in white. Now, all these years later, I will be watching it black and white and seeing whether or not I like it.

AFTER: “Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings,” is the famous quote from It’s a Wonderful Life. I have to think that every time someone watches this film they remember how important they are. This film takes you through George Baliey’s (James Stewart) entire life: the good and the bad, the excitement and the depression. There’s a very happy ending but It’s a Wonderful Life is much more than that - it’s about the journey to that ending and how even if there’s trouble, you’ll always get back on your feet.

Everything about It’s a Wonderful Life has that classic old-tale feeling to it. It is nothing like today’s films where you see sprawling sets, huge ensemble casts, and a minimum of 100 visual effects to tell this grandiose and fictional tale, probably with lots of explosions and chases. As is evident from my reviews, I like a great many of the films made today. But there’s something to be had for a good old classic tale with a moral and standard elements. Every once and a while you need this to remind you of what’s important in telling a great story so that you can turn your brain off and get lost in a fantasy world for two hours and forget about real life.

One of the most interesting, and successful, parts of It’s a Wonderful Life is its structure. This tale of George Bailey is broken up three big sections, or three acts: (1) his childhood/pre-marriage years; (2) his marriage and successful business; and (3) his sudden misfortune and resulting depression. Each is separate in its own way showing a different aspect and time period of George’s life. His childhood was when he didn’t have a care in the world and was completely selfless, always helping others. After he was married he still had this sense of kindness and generosity but he dealt more with his business and the problems that arise because of that. He needs to deal with his customers/friends and the evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and the stress that comes with managing multiple interests while keeping everyone happy. And finally, his misfortune and resulting depression is what most people probably remember about the film because it is also the big message of the film - “No man is a failure who has friends”. While each time frame is separate and could be treated as its own section, one would be incomplete without the others. In order for the film to succeed and for the viewer to grasp the moral and have it mean something, they need to see every part of George’s life. Who he is, what he does, what he believes in. Without a relatable character that people can associate with, the film loses its purpose and its appeal and becomes a random compilation of meaningless clips.

Being such an important film, I feel its necessary to quote an actual, professional critic, the one and only, Roger Ebert:

What is remarkable about “It’s a Wonderful Life” is how well it holds up over the years; it’s one of those ageless movies, like “Casablanca” or “The Third Man,” that improves with age. Some movies, even good ones, should only be seen once. When we know how they turn out, they’ve surrendered their mystery and appeal. Other movies can be viewed an indefinite number of times. Like great music, they improve with familiarity. “It’s a Wonderful Life” falls in the second category.

I said before It’s a Wonderful Life is a “classic tale with a moral and standard elements”. Hearing that you probably think that this is just like today’s films: mostly unoriginal, remade and adapted garbage. But that’s not necessarily true. You wouldn’t say that about fairy tales or Aesop’s Fables - those are age-old stories that you’ve grown up with your entire life. It’s a Wonderful Life is the same way, it’s a film that, as Ebert says, “improves with age [and] familiarity”.

RATING: 5 out of 5