Top 100 Movie Review: No. 027 – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Ranked 027 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017). Watched movie during June 2020.

Cast:  James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower)
Director: Frank Capra 
My rating: 8.0 / 10

On Christmas Eve 1945, in Bedford Falls, New York, 38-year-old George Bailey contemplates suicide. The prayers of his family and many friends reach heaven, where Angel 2nd class Clarence Odbody is assigned to save George, to earn his wings. Clarence views flashbacks of George’s life:

In 1919, 12-year-old George saves his brother Harry from drowning but loses the hearing in his left ear as a result. Following his recovery, George prevents the town druggist, Mr. Gower, who is grieving from the loss of his son, from accidentally poisoning a child.  A furious Mr Gower initially hits George several times for not delivering the prescription leading to George bleeding from his ear.  Once Mr Gower realises that George saved the boys life he breaks down ashamed of hitting George and almost killing a sick boy, George promises not to tell anyone.

In 1928, George (James Stewart) plans to tour the world before college, and is reintroduced to Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) he is knew as a kid and who has long had a crush on him since then. When his father suffers a stroke and dies, George postpones his travel to sort out the family business, Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan, which board member Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) wishes to dissolve, but the board votes to keep it open, provided that George runs it. Giving his college tuition to Harry on the condition that Harry take over the Building and Loan when he graduates, George works alongside his uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell).

In 1932, a married Harry returns from college, but because of an excellent job offer from his father-in-law, he no longer intends to take over the Building and Loan, George reluctantly lets him go. George then marries Mary but while leaving to go on their honeymoon they witness a run on the bank and use their $2,000 honeymoon savings to keep the Building and Loan solvent so once again George is stuck in Bedford Falls.

George establishes Bailey Park, a housing development financed by the Building and Loan, in contrast to Potter’s overpriced slums which charges tenants excessive rents. Potter offers George $20,000 a year to become his assistant, but George realises Potter intends to shut down the Building and Loan and rebukes him.

During World War II, George is ineligible for service because of his deaf ear. Harry becomes a Navy pilot and earns the Medal of Honour by shooting down a kamikaze plane headed for a troop transport. On Christmas Eve 1945, as the town prepares a hero’s welcome for Harry, Billy goes to deposit $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s cash. At the bank, Billy taunts Potter with a newspaper headline about Harry, but unintentionally wraps the envelope of cash in Potter’s newspaper. Billy discovers he has misplaced the cash, and Potter finds the envelope but says nothing and keeps the money. When a bank examiner reviews the Building and Loan’s records, George realises scandal and criminal charges will follow. Fruitlessly retracing Billy’s steps, George berates him, and takes out his frustration on his family as his world comes crushing down.

George appeals to Potter for a loan, offering his life insurance policy which pays out $15,000 on death and has $500 equity as collateral. Potter taunts George saying he is worth more dead than alive, and phones the police to arrest him for misappropriation of funds even though Mr Potter knows George did no such thing. After getting drunk at a bar and praying for help, a suicidal George goes to a nearby bridge. Before George can jump, Clarence dives into the river and is rescued by George.

When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence shows him a timeline in which he never existed. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, a town occupied by sleazy entertainment venues, crime, pawn shops, violence and amoral people. Mr. Gower was imprisoned for manslaughter after putting poison in the pills, since George was not there to prevent it, and George and Mary’s house is derelict. George’s mother reveals that Billy was institutionalized after the Building and Loan failed. In the cemetery where Bailey Park was, George discovers Harry’s grave. The soldiers on the transport ship died because Harry did not save them, since George did not save Harry. George finds Mary, now a spinster who works at the library. When he claims to be her husband, she screams for the police and George flees.

Convinced that Clarence is his guardian angel, George runs to the bridge and begs for his life back. The original reality is restored, and a grateful George rushes home to find a sheriff there to arrest him and a photographer to take photos of his disgrace.  But George is a happy man and rushes to his children hugging them.  Mary and Billy arrive, having rallied the townspeople, who donate more than enough to cover the $8,000; the sheriff rips up George’s arrest warrant, and Harry toasts George as “the richest man in town” as he has some many friends. George then receives a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a gift from Clarence. At that moment, a bell on the Christmas tree rings, which George’s youngest daughter  says means an angel has earned his wings, signifying Clarence’s promotion. George, his family and friends sing “Auld Lang Syne”.

What’s to Like
The strong acting and the intriguing what if storyline.

What’s not to Like
Nothing significant.  

Considered immediately after release to be a box-office failure with only mixed reviews It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered one of the greatest movies of all time but this was my first viewing however I have seen a lot of the key scenes parodied.  George is a selfish man always putting others, in particular his family but also the community, ahead of his clear desires.  He never gets to leave Bedford Falls.  Any while he is mostly happy with this life until things go so wrong on Christmas Eve he doesn’t see the effect he has had on his community.  He doesn’t think that they would be there for him which makes the scene when it appears the majority of the town have come to his rescue so moving.

While the movie ends on such a high it is a turbulent ride to see someone so good and moral think he has let everyone down and has no value.  The ‘what if’ scenario is well used and pays off every earlier scene and it is a reminder that we can never always know who big an impact we are having on those around us and that we might have more people who care about us then we realise, this is something most suicidal people can’t see.

James Stewart is a legend of Hollywood playing such wholesome characters which is why seeing him bought so low probably causes such an emotional impact on the viewer than other actors would have gotten. 

A joyful Christmas movie but be warned from 1 hour 10 minutes until around 1 hour 45 minutes you’ll be emotionally invested and sad as George’s life and reputation looks over though no fault of his own.

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Stewart) – nominee
  • Best Director (Frank Capra) – nominee
  • Best Sound, Recording – nominee
  • Best Film Editing – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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