I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas and that Erin and I are almost to the end of our ‘Tis the Season Cinema. This week we are discussing It’s A Wonderful Life.
I have to be honest that I am completely baffled when I hear an American say, “I’ve never seen It’s A Wonderful Life,” if that American is past the age of at least 40.
I mean, really? Never seen even part of the movie? How is that possible? But, well, there are plenty of classic movies I haven’t seen either and sometimes that is because there have been so many parodies of a particular movie, I just have a feeling I might not like them.
I think that might be the case with It’s A Wonderful Life for some people. I don’t think many people understand that It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t really a Christmas movie, exactly. I’m not sure why people only watch it around Christmas. Sure, there are big scenes that revolve around and are related to Christmas, but a great deal of the movie takes place at other times of the year. Those other scenes also carry messages well beyond the overall one of the movie of recognizing the importance of one’s life before it’s too late.
My son doesn’t like to watch the movie because he says it’s depressing. The movie does feature some depressing moments. George Bailey’s life itself isn’t very cheerful for much of the movie. Like a lot of things in life, though, the viewer has to hold on through the bad to get to the good.
I tell my son this when I asked him to watch it with me a few years ago and, luckily, he held out, though I still don’t know if he liked the movie that much. (I rambled about that experience here on the blog a few years ago
In some ways, I think you need to be older to understand the power of It’s A Wonderful Life and all the intricate messages within it.
First, of course, is the story of George and his overcoming hardships and the setbacks in his life. Poor George. Every time he has a chance to go explore the world or get an education, something stops him. You’ll have to watch the movie to find out all the reasons why and how, but needless to say that his dreams are dashed on the rocks of circumstances over and over. He spends part of his life bitter and angry that the opportunities he had were taken away by responsibility or the decisions of others. In the midst of it, though, there is some happiness, especially with his beautiful wife and children. (updated: As Katja pointed out in her comment (that’s her username name, by the way. I don’t know if it is her real name or not. Ha!) he channels that disappointment in doing good for the people of his community.
But in addition to George’s story is the story of Mary – a woman who as a 12-year-old little girl leaned over and whispered in the ear George was deaf in, “George Bailey, I’ll love you until the day I die.” Her love for George was one her family didn’t want her to have but she held on to it for years. George was a down-on-your-luck fellow who was never going to leave Bedford Falls and would always be the owner of the local savings and loan — no one really to speak of. Her family wanted more for her, but Mary wanted George. She wanted a family with him and a small, simple life in her hometown. It was something she didn’t need to be ashamed of, even though in today’s world they would have told her it wasn’t enough.
And in addition to George and Mary is the story of George’s younger brother — who seemed to always catch all the luck, starting with George saving him from a frozen lake and losing hearing in one ear because of it –, Clarence, an angel who comes to help George,
One of my favorite scenes of the movie is also one of my favorite kiss scenes of any movie. I wrote about it this way on my blog in 2019:
Whether you have seen the movie or not, I’ll set the stage: George has come to talk to Mary, at the prodding of his mother and he’s pretty down because his brother Harry has come home and it looks like he’s not going to stay and take over the Savings and Loan so George can go to college, like the original plan. Instead, George is going to be stuck at the savings and loan, no education or experience outside his little town under his belt.
He walks off to see Mary, who his mother hopes will lift his spirits (and I’m pretty sure she hopes he’ll realize he loves Mary too). Long story short, George and Mary’s old friend Sam Wainwright calls to talk to Mary but then he wants to talk to George too so they are sharing the old rotary phone – the one where the earpiece is detached from the mouthpiece.
This necessitates George being close to Mary to hear and being close to Mary is the one thing George really doesn’t want because that’s when he starts to realize how much he really wants her. I love the acting in the scene – how you can see Jimmy Stewart’s expression change as he starts to smell her hair, feel him next to her. He wants to kiss her, hold her, not talk to Sam and it’s clear as each moment goes by and Sam continues to prattle on. Mary is starting to notice it too and her face is showing the struggle of her wanting to be close to George too.
Finally, George cracks and he’s holding Mary and she’s crying and he’s telling her he doesn’t want to get married because he doesn’t want to stay in this little town.
“I want to do what I want to do,” he tells her, grasping her shoulders and shaking her.
He’s leaving, he’s not going to stay with her, and he wants her to know that, but he’s saying it more for himself than her because he knows he loves Mary and he knows his love for her will keep him tied down in this little town and will complicate his life even more. And all along, Mary’s mother is crying because her daughter is going to marry a poor man like George instead of the rich businessman, Sam.
I love that scene because it’s so real. It’s a man not wanting to admit he’s in love, instead of the usual schmaltzy romances where the man is going after the woman like a tenth-degree horn dog, so to speak.
According to several online sources, Jimmy was worried about the kissing scene because he hadn’t acted much since returning from World War II. They filmed the scene in one take and he became so wrapped up in the passion, they had to cut some of the scene to avoid being scolded by the censors. Jimmy’s emotions overcame him during filming of another scene, as well. During the scene at the bar where George asks for God’s help he tears up and begins to cry, which wasn’t only an act. Jimmy, still suffering from the effects of war, most likely dealing with what we now call PTSD, began to think about all the lonely, hurting people of the world and lost it.
Neither Jimmy Stewart nor director Frank Capra expected the emotion. Capra hadn’t moved in the camera for a close up shot of Jimmy during the scene and both knew Jimmy couldn’t recreate it so in the end Capra somehow zoomed the film in, which was not a common or easy thing to do in 1946. The result was the scene was slightly grainier than the rest of the film but in the end, no one cared because the emotion of the scene was so captivating.
Now, in 2019, I wrote I didn’t like the ending scene because of so many parodies of the little girl’s line of “Every time a bell ring, an angel gets it’s wings.” I don’t actually dislike the scene, thinking about it now. It’s the parodies that are annoying and ruin it.
That scene and the ones that precede it are the most uplifting of the whole film. They’re the scenes where George realizes he has more than he thought he did, where he sees that not only his is life important, but he’s touched so many more lives than he realized.
If you haven’t seen the movie, but have instead only seen the parodies and think the movie is too cheesy or smaltzy or whatever you think it might be, take a chance and give it a try. You’ll see why so many people love the movie and why it made Jimmy Stewart one of America’s favorite actors ever.
To read Erin’s impressions of the movie visit her blog. To read Katja’s impression you can visit her blog too.
Next week our last Christmas movie installments are Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Join in watching and chatting with us about it, if you want.