AFInity: It's a Wonderful Life
By Kim Hollis
December 24, 2009

The best part of this picture is the pouting kid at the bottom.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#20: It's a Wonderful Life

If I told you that I've never seen It's a Wonderful Life before, would it blow your mind? Well, that would be a lie, but I haven't seen the film in 20 years or more, so to say that Frank Capra's well-known opus felt new to me would not be an understatement. Naturally, there are pieces and elements that I've seen in clip format over the years - so much so that they feel exceptionally familiar to me - but there were many things about It's a Wonderful Life that surprised me as I watched it with fresh eyes.

Back when I watched the film the first time, It's a Wonderful Life had become a Christmas tradition on television. During the 1970s, '80s and '90s, it was something you could count on as surely as A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer. And during that era, people became a little bit disenchanted with the movie, to the point that it got poked fun at a bit. It had a reputation for being so relentlessly buoyant and saccharine that people simply rejected it out of hand. I'm a little embarrassed to admit I did the same. I really only watched it under protest, and from that day on I remembered the movie as a little silly and not really worth a couple of my hours.

Watching it in 2009, I'm feeling a little differently.

Anyone who really believes that It's a Wonderful Life is all about unbridled optimism probably needs to give the film a second look. Yes, there's a message in the movie about accepting your life as it is, and an understanding that every person has a profound effect on the life of all the people they touch. But I find that the film has a bit of a grim outlook on how things can spiral out of control and also about certain elements of humanity in general.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, I'm going to go ahead and tread into spoiler territory for much of this review. I presume that even those who haven't seen the film are pretty familiar with where the story goes anyway.

Throughout the entire film, we're effectively subjected to the notion that George Bailey wants to escape Bedford Falls. Beginning with his youth, we see his ambitions to explore the corners of the world, along with his determination that nothing should get in his way. And yet, nothing goes as planned. Just as he's about to strike out for college, George's father has a stroke and dies, leaving him the only worthy person to take over management of the family's business, a Building and Loan (quaint, right?). His intent is to do the job for a few years - long enough for his brother to finish college and then return and take over so that George can accomplish his own dreams. But then, the younger Bailey gets married and is offered a job in research, and George once again sacrifices himself for the sake of his family. It continues on and on and on until we finally come to the fateful night when George's drunk uncle, Billy, loses an $8,000 deposit and puts George at risk of going to jail. Distraught, he goes home and yells at his wife and children before leaving the house in despair, crashing his car, and climbing on a bridge with the intent to jump off. Thanks to insurance money, he'd be worth more dead than alive.

It takes an act by an angel named Clarence to show George just how different his family, friends, and home town would be if he'd never been born. George's brother would have died as a child, his mother would be the lonely owner of a boarding house, his uncle would be in an insane asylum, friends would be miserable and the town itself would have been taken over by the evil banker Potter (to the point that Bedford Falls is known as Potterville in the non-George Bailey universe). By the time George is returned to the world as it is, everything seems hunky-dory. The entire town turns out to help him with the lost money, giving their own hard-earned cash to help him out of the sticky situation. Everyone sings "Auld Lang Syne", George's daughter Zuzu points out that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings, and we all (presumably) live happily ever after.

And you know, while it's all really nice to see the town of Bedford Falls respond to the man who's been so critical to making all of their lives better in such a positive manner, I can't help but think it's all a just a little bit oppressive. I mean, after seeing the things George dreamed for, Clarence's presentation of a Bedford Falls where George never existed shows that he bears a gigantic load of responsibility on his shoulders. Once the crisis of the missing money has passed, what weight must he bear next? We'll never know, but looking at the dark circles under George's eyes as he holds Zuzu, smiles at his wife and congratulates Clarence for his new wings makes me a little melancholy. Here's a protagonist who has done everything right, but in the end his reward is to be shown that his life as he knows it is wonderful, after all. It is, but I still want more for George Bailey. In my mind, he and his family eventually get to go on some wonderful adventures together in distant lands all over the world.

I think it's probably a credit to James Stewart that I'm so wrapped up in his character. His performance is very believable, from the highs to the lows. George isn't always a paragon of virtue and he isn't even always very nice. I think we can all see a little of ourselves in him because of that, and this is part of the magic of It's a Wonderful Life.

As far as the quality of the film itself, I find it to be very well acted, with tight, consistent storytelling. Some of the players are mere caricatures - think Uncle Billy or Mr. Potter - but for the most part, we can see Bedford Falls as a place anyone might call home.

There's one other piece of cynicism in It's a Wonderful Life that I feel compelled to remark upon. The movie has a notable antagonist in Henry F. Potter - in fact, he's so worthy that the AFI ranked him at #6 on their list of villains. He commits an absolutely unforgiveable, despicable act (on top of all his other unforgiveable, despicable acts) when he steals the $8,000 that could have led to George being imprisoned and the Building and Loan going out of business. In most movies, the writer/director/test audiences would have felt it necessary to give Potter a comeuppance by punishing him. In It's a Wonderful Life, his crime goes undiscovered. Capra isn't really telling us that the good guy always wins. Instead, I think we're reminded that what we have every day with friends and family is worth celebrating in its own right. And what better time than Christmas, while we're gathered with these people, to remember this?

Merry Christmas, everyone. (And if you don't celebrate Christmas, Happy Holidays, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or whichever celebration you may choose to partake in.)

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