It Really Is

The statement "behind every cynic is an idealist" is proven by looking at a slice of my DVD collection: Dr. Strangelove, Rushmore, Office Space, High Fidelity, This Is Spinal Tap... It's a Wonderful Life.

Yes, I'm an unapologetic lover of this ultimate "Capracorn" flick. And for that, I apologize. I know there's a huge crowd out there that is sickened by its cheesy sentimentality, and I understand that. But here's the thing. I popped in the DVD last night and watched most of the movie, plus all of the special features. And you know what? It's not just a guilty pleasure; it's a really, really good movie.

Here are the surprising elements that don't get enough credit:

1. The whole "George sees the world without him in it" part... how far into the movie do you think that comes? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes? How about one hour and 45 minutes. I was shocked to realize this. In screenplay-ese, the "inciting incident" is Clarence the Angel starting to see George's life. The second act is entirely made up of all the things that lead George to contemplate suicide. Clarence doesn't actually arrive on the scene until nearly two hours into the movie. The part that everyone remembers is simply the third act.

2. It's actually a dark movie. George's brother nearly drowns. The pharmacist's son dies of the famous 1919 influenza. The people of Bedford Falls live in slums during The Great Depression. Think I'm crazy? One of the reasons the movie disappointed at the box office is that crowds at the time found the movie too depressing.

3. The acting is superb. Jimmy Stewart is convincing not only as the cheesy "Auld Lang Syne" singer at the end, but as the guy who insults his uncle, gets wasted, yells at his kids, threatens to beat up the teacher's husband, crashes a car and jumps off a bridge. Uncle Billy, spot on. The pharmacist, Old Man Gower, thoroughly convincing as a distraught father (the actor, H.B. Warner, had been typecast after playing Christ in The King of Kings 20 years earlier). Lionel Barrymore, truly wonderful.

4. The only reason the movie ever got to where it did was a clerical error that threw it into the public domain. That's why every TV station in America put it on television in the 80s.

5. The final script (many were commissioned and rejected before Capra took over) is well-structured, and the dialogue quite good.

Surprising for the times:
"What's George Bailey doing here?"
"He's making violent love to me, mother!"

"George, I'm an old man, and most people hate me. But I don't like them either, so that makes it all even."

And the scene where Potter tries to hire George... in my book, one of the best constructed and acted scenes you'll find anywhere, right down to the too-big chair and cigar.

The movie also brought some real innovations to movie-making, including the complicated way the production designers made snow (to that point, studios had simply painted Corn Flakes white, which led to sound problems during walking scenes). The Bedford Falls set... four acres in an L.A. sound stage, shot during an unprecedented heat wave.

The early scenes of kids sledding with snow shovels hit me differently now that I have a four-year-old. When James and I woke up this morning and he spotted the trees and sidewalks coated with a sticky snow, we promptly bundled up after breakfast, went to the front yard, made a snowman and went sledding.

"Daddy, do you know what? It's just TWO DAYS until Christmas Eve! Isn't that great?"
"Yes, it is. It really is."


Anonymous said…
Merry Christmas, you old softie.


P.S. I love classic movie trivia.
Michael F. said…
Well played.
Yes, I agree. It is a great movie.
But my favorite all time holiday movie still is, and ever shall remain, Holiday Inn.
Vegas Gopher said…
It's become an annual tradition for me in the last decade or so -- stay up late, after everybody's gone to bed, and wrap a slew of presents while I watch "It's A Wonderful Life."

When I actually sat down to watch it for the first time about 10 years ago, I too was amazed at how much of the dialogue and even some of Stewart's mannerisms seems so far ahead of their time -- much like when you read Shakespeare and shake your head at how many of his lines have found their way into our modern lexicon.

I particularly love the scene where Mary's robe falls off and she dives behind the bush. Stewart, acting the cad, plays the situation for all it's worth, and for a moment you actually believe he's going to make Donna Reed strut out in the buff to get her robe back.

Then, of course, the scene screeches to a halt as George learns of his father's stroke. Just as in real life, comedy and tragedy are often just a hair's breadth apart.

I'll raise a toast to you, Mr. Conklin, with my mulled wine as I'm neck deep in wrapping paper and scotch tape tomorrow night.

Vegas Gopher said…
I actually went for the flaming rum punch, risking Nick's ire in the process. I watched the bonus content as well and found the piece with Frank Capra Jr. pretty interesting.

I'd love to see a career highlights piece on all of the main actors, showing what else they did and how long they worked. I was particularly struck by the kid who played young George (and who could also have played a young Marc Conklin -- are you sure you didn't slip through a fissure in the time-space continuum and land that part?). That kid, according to his IMDB page, didn't film anything after 1956, which seems amazing given the talent he displayed. He had Stewart's mannerisms and vocal inflections nailed ("Hot dog!").

I also liked the scene after Violet disrupts traffic in her tight dress. Ernie says, "How would you like to ..." and George cuts him off with a simple, "Yes!" Then Bert the cop says he's going home to see what the wife is doing, and Ernie looks on with a knowing smile. Pretty racy stuff for a family film, even by today's standards.

I guess that's one of the reasons I think this movie stands the test of time -- yeah, it's "Capra-corn," but the characters are unfailingly human. Maybe audiences back then weren't accustomed to such three-dimensional portrayals, but that's what makes it work for me. Was George Bailey one of Hollywood's first flawed heroes? And if he were living today, would he have been prescribed heavy doses of Wellbutrin and told to go easy on the double bourbons?
Anonymous said…
Sheldon Leonard (Nick) had a pretty interesting career. Producing I Spy, The Andy Griffith Show and Dick Van Dyke (plus directing episodes of My Favorite Martians). Not a bad run. Plus Bill Cosby wrote a comedy routine about him.

His legacy even lives on in at least one other weird way, The Big Bang Theory, a brand new (and not bad) sitcom on CBS has two main characters, one named Sheldon, and the other named Leonard.

Marc Conklin said…
Another interesting tidbit from the DVD: the jealous kid at the high school dance who opens up the swimming pool? Alfalfa from Our Gang.
Anonymous said…
Personally, one of the redeeming qualities of "It's a Wonderful Life", for me, is that the women aren't just cardboard backdrops for the antics (loveable and not-so) of their men. "Holiday Inn" strikes me as quite the opposite - the female characters are totally non-developed. And let's not even *start* on the black face number "ABE-ra-HAM, ABE-ra-HAM" in honor of AL's birthday. Yeesh.
Rolling187 said…
Every year, a few days before Christmas, I pop that movie into the DVD player at 11pm and watch until the wee hours of the morning. Next year I am going to get my kids to join me.
Great post.

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