Monday, 28 December 2009

Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?

No 195 - It's a Wonderful Life
Director - Frank Capra

This is a film I've been meaning to watch for years. However I keep missing it at Christmas, and it is a film so ingrained into the season that it seems strange watching it when it isn't Christmas.
So finally I got round to watching it (in original black and white rather than new and coloured in). I was surprised by two things:
Firstly this is a REALLY long film, running in at over two hours.
Secondly, the first 90 minutes has nothing really to do with Clarence and what is typically known as the story of 'It's a Wonderful Life'.

Instead we begin with some people praying for George Bailey (the always wonderful Jimmy Stewart) and (in my personal favourite moment) angels, represented by stars, having a little chat about what they should do to answer all these prayers.
So, in order for Clarence the angel to know how to save George Bailey, we must know his story. This is the majority of the film, the life of George Bailey.

What I like is the weird blend of tragedy and comedy in this film. George is a tragic character. Nothing he hopes for ever works out. We essentially watch 90 minutes of his dreams being crushed and his aspirations cancelled out by his kindness.
He is however a very well loved and popular man, and whilst fate pisses all over him, the film never fails to show how loved he is. From his family (who are chaotic, hilarious and feel like a real family) through to his many friends around the town.
Incidentally, two of George's friends form a nice little double act. Bert, the policeman and Ernie the cabby... Bert and Ernie aye? Well... alas Henson dismissed it as coincidence, but I think we all know that Frank Capra's well directed buddies were probably the influence for the best muppets on Sesame Street.

On top of his friends, George has his relationship with Mary. From her first beautiful confession into his deaf ear all the way up their wedding and subsequent family, Mary is a vital support to poor little George.
As the film plunges further into heart breaking doom and gloom, it also allows the films' few moments of balls out comedy. Nothing could be better than the bonkers anarchy of their first date at Harry Bailey's graduation.
We get some funky Charleston dancing from Jimmy Stewart as the least convincing 20 year old EVER, then everyone falls into a pool and Mary ends up naked in a bush.
It is all a bit of bizarre nonsense but it is the little moments like that that pepper the film with lightness.

Because the rest of the film is so sad. Mr Potter, a man who owns most of the town and who is trying to bankrupt George is such a boo hiss baddy that it slightly belittles his plots, but the effect they have on George is heartbreaking.
George goes out of his way to help so many people. He gives up his dream of travelling, his dream of university, his honeymoon... just so he can help people out.
He is so so so so nice and yet nothing nice ever happens to him.
So gradually as the years go by and George becomes more and more flustered and stressed, you really empathise with him. By the time Potter makes his evil cackling declaration "You're worth more dead than alive" which fills George's head with dark thoughts you just want him to be happy. For once, you want things to really go his way.

So finally we come to what the film is famous for. George, about to jump off a bridge, is stopped by Clarence and shown what life would be like if he had never been born.
What is impressive is the way that it showcases the difference one man can make. The fact that one single person can do so much for the people around him and change so much.
Considering I thought this was the entire film, I was surprised to see the parallel world section only lasting around 30 minutes. Enough to show the degree of death and misery which stemmed from there being no George Bailey in the world. However the evil version of the town does seem fun. Full of bars and casinos and brothels. It is a hot bed of liquor, women and VICE. Much more interesting than the boring town he grew up in....
George spends an awful lot of time unable to compute that HE ISN'T BORN. So he tends to find someone he knows, talk to them, get angry that they don't know him and move on to another person he knows.
Once it finally twigs, Clarence sends George back and George is just delighted to be home...

It is here that Finally we have the big uplifting ending. In the same way that Slumdog Millionaire is a bleak film with a big uplifting ending, so to is It's a Wonderful Life. But by the time the film ends you've been following George for over two hours.
You'll be so happy to see something going in George's favour that there won't be a dry eye in the house.

No comments: