The richest man in town
The passage of time is funny. Prior to the viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life for this viewing, I can’t recall the last time I actually watched it from start to finish. It had possibly been a decade.
And yet the film is indelibly etched in my brain. Memories are tied to emotions, and few movies inspire such strong emotions as Frank Capra’s heart-swelling drama. The second I hit play, I was completely submersed.
The story does such a good job from the start of constructing and contrasting the film’s two principle subjects: first, George Bailey, chipper and smart and principled; second, Bedford Falls, sleepy and bumbling (but very human), evil banker Potter always circling.
Over and over, the town needs George to sacrifice something of himself. The audience is as emotionally depleted as George is by the supernatural climax, a noir alternate reality that is a final cold dagger.
Then it starts snowing, and George is back, and I’m already choking up. No movie ending I’ve seen is so euphoric and life-affirming yet so deeply earned. “A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town,” followed by “Auld Lang Syne,” crystallizes a theme common but rarely felt so strongly in stories: the value of serving others instead of yourself.
It would be tough to overstate how good Jimmy Stewart is in this. He captures every angle of George Bailey — the upstart hungry to see the world; the resilient good guy who hangs around; the depressed lug who can’t get a break; the inverse-Scrooge witnessing his own bleak erasure; and the giddy, dazed “richest man.” It’s not just Jimmy Stewart the charmer, but a real piece of character work with a complete arc.
The movie’s black and white photography is gorgeous, with lots of flourishes that add texture to the story: the gauzy portrait of Mary, the shadowy Pottersville, the visual energy of the dance collapsing into the pool. And nearly all of the acting is good, with Donna Reed’s warm presence the film’s secret weapon.
You can certainly find holes to poke if you’re looking. Some of the editing is wonky, and I don’t even have much of an eye for such things; the World War 2 montage feels of place for a film otherwise entirely contained in a small town (the self-sacrifice themes wrought from the war are self-evident, anyways); and there might be one too many instances of a last-minute crisis keeping George at home the exact moment he’s about to head out.
But none of those flaws end up mattering. George pulls out Zuzu’s petals and I’m not thinking about anything other than how lucky I am a film can still make me feel this way.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100