Things to happily check off my list: Watch It's a Wonderful Life. Check. Watch a Frank Capra movie. Check.
I am patting myself on the back for putting this up first on my 2015 Blind Spot list, a genius idea for a blog feature created by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee. I loved every minute of it.
I was a stubborn young man. My Mom constantly tried to get me to watch "old" movies. I always acted like a little punk about it. I don't know why. I wish my Mom had kept trying when I really started loving movies, began actively watching anything I possibly could at around the age of 17.
You hear some people scoff at the idea of watching a black-and-white film. I read that, this one, after making it's way into public domain territory was "colorized." How sad. This is a beautiful film, a portrait of a lovely small town, shot in glorious black and white. I'm glad I'm seeing it now. And this way.
For some reason, It's a Wonderful Life eluded me...until now. My Dad recently asked me if I'd ever seen this movie. He couldn't believe I hadn't. It made this choice even sweeter that I got a random recommendation after I'd already made this my first Blind Spot. How happy I am to have seen it.
There are two kinds of people in any small town: the ones who get out, and the ones who don't. Where does George Bailey land? What does he want? What does he get? These are the questions raised and answered by Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.
You see, George Bailey (James Stewart) is so intertwined with his hometown of Bedford Falls that he, at times, seems to forget what it means to him, what he's done for it, what it's done for him. The elder son of a ne'er-do-well Building and Loan man, George grows up with one dream: see the world. In the midst of all his dreaming, there are people in a town who need him. This internal conflict drives the movie. He is a loving and compassionate man, but he doesn't always see that in himself. He doesn't believe that's him. His actions come from the heart, his dreams come from his head. This is a film where heart wins.
The structure of the movie is simple, yet magical. It opens on Christmas Eve with people praying, wishing, hoping for good to come to George. He is down and out, and we don't yet know why. Up among the stars, God hears their prayers and enlists an Angel called Clarence to make his way to Bedford Falls, the one task that will earn him his wings. But first, his story must be told.
George was always a selfless character. A man who saves his little brother from drowning as a boy, who captures the heart of the pretty girl next door in Mary (Donna Reed), who stays on to run the family business with his Uncle Billy (the great Thomas Mitchell) after his father's death, leaving his college and world traveling behind, who gives his own wedding purse to his clients as they rush to withdraw their investments, who turns down the huge job from the town kingpin, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), because he knows how and what that may destroy, he gives and never takes. He is loved. But he still wants more.
No actor could better portray this character. Jimmy Stewart is one of the most real and likable actors to ever grace the screen. He is iconic in his accent and mannerisms. He plays the internal struggle of George Bailey to a perfection rarely seen. You can actually see a sadness in his distressed face when he makes all the right choices, does good, just plain good, all the while wishing for another life. A life of his imaginings. It's life that happens to us while we're busy making other plans, yes? Nothing is more certain for George Bailey. Nothing.
From what I understand, Frank Capra often crafted parables of good people. Nice people. People of values and faith. This is the ultimate story of a life. A good life lived by a good man, who never realized his own value until it was almost too late. This is a perfectly-crafted, beautifully shot film. The kind of movie you know was made with great love and care.
When that last hit finally comes (the loss of $8,000 of his client's investments, which may ultimately lead to his losing everything) on that fateful Christmas Eve, George Bailey is finally broken and ready to end it all. Then, the magic...
This movie works and is so immensely memorable and successful because it is about all of us. We all have dreams that never come true. We all want things we, deep down, know we can't have. We all touch the lives around us in ways we can't possibly comprehend.
I was reminded, as I watched this movie, of Pete Docter's Up!, animated by Pixar and released in 2009. It was then I realized how timeless It's a Wonderful Life is. It's not inspiring (although it certainly has inspired other stories of this kind), it's inspired. Like Up!, it is inspired by the good there is in life. By love and happiness and hopes and dreams and fears.
George Bailey was a man afraid of failure but so far from being that. He just needed a slap in the face on the happiest day of the year to make him realize that his life in Bedford Falls has been full of wonder, the same kind he never knew he wanted. George's life was full. Filled with a beautiful, loving wife for whom he lassoed the moon. Filled with beautiful children for whom he did as well. Filled with a family who ran a business for the good of a town and its people, not money. Filled with friends. Yes. Friends. A whole town of them. People willing to pay it back and forward for a good man, the best kind of man, on Christmas.
I live in a small town myself. The same town I grew up in. I've almost never wanted to leave. I am a small town guy with few regrets. Lucky for me, I differ from George Bailey in that way. Or maybe I just realized my place in this life a bit quicker. Maybe I don't even know, yet. I do know, though, that small towns, the towns of our youth, are special. And I also know and "remember" that "no man is a failure who has friends."