Monday, January 5, 2015

It's a Wonderful Life Is Even More Wonderful on a Big Screen

Special Theatrical Screening

It's a Wonderful Life Is Even More Wonderful on a Big Screen

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 12/18/14)

By Danny Peary
George and Clarence get to know each other.
George and Clarence get to know each other.
Sure, you’ve watched or plan to watch It’s a Wonderful Lifeon television for the fifteenth or twenty-fifth consecutive December. But did you know that that you can also see Frank Capra’s incomparable Christmas classic in 35mm in a theater in New York City?  The IFC Center at 323 Avenue of the Americas, off 4th Street, has been showing it several times a day and that will continue through holidays. Wouldn’t it be very cool to see it there on Christmas Day?  Or see it this weekend. I can testify that as splendid as it is on television, despite an avalanche of commercials, watching it on a big screen is a totally different, much superior experience. The first time I sawIt’s a Wonderful Life was on a big screen in the late sixties, when a 16mm print was screened by the Wisconsin Film Society in a lecture hall on the UW-Madison campus. At the time, it was by no means a holiday favorite and, in fact, none of my film fanatic friends had seen it either–or even wondered about it.   Afterward, I was shocked that one of the best films I’d ever seen had such a sorry reputation for twenty years.
Capra had been shocked by the negative reaction himself when he released the picture in 1946. “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”
Unfortunately, the mood of the country had changed because of the war and moviegoers and critics were so quick to reject “Capra-corn” and unabashed sentimentality and search for darker films with cynical themes that they failed to notice that much of It’s a Wonderful Life is as dark and cynical as it gets.  It would take decades before the film was embraced by America.  That we fans began to see it repeatedly and spread the word made it an obvious choice for inclusion in my 1981 book, Cult Movies.  Also, it was my choice for Best Picture of 1946 in my 1993 book,Alternate Oscars (in which I also gave James Stewart my Best Actor designation).  In those books I wrote full chapters about It’s a Wonderful Life.  I hope you check them out, but for now, here is my brief entry in my 1986 book, Guide for the Film Fanatic:
“Once neglected, Frank Capra’s masterpiece about the importance of every individual has become a Christmas perennial and one of our most popular films.  Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra wrote the script, with an assist from Jo Swerling–they adapted a story, “The Greatest Gift,” which the writer Philip van Doren Stern sent as a Christmas card to his friends.  James Stewart is George Bailey, who has always dreamed of traveling but has spent his entire life in Bedford Falls running his modest building-and-loan and making sure that the good townspeople aren’t left in the evil hands of rich Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).  He has sacrificed all his life for others’ happiness and security, but where has it gotten him?  On Christmas Eve he realizes that he’ll be going to jail because his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) mislaid–actually, Potter stole it–a large check.  George wishes he’d never been born and contemplates suicide.  But his wife Mary (beautifully played by the beautiful Donna Reed) and daughters have been praying for him, and a sweet angel, Clarence Goodbody (Henry Travers), arrives to help George–and earn his wings in the process.  In a nightmarish sequence he shows George what a dreadful place Bedford Falls would have been without him and what miserable lives all his friends and family would have led if he hadn’t been around–George realizes that every man makes a profound difference, and that a good man such as himself can benefit countless people.
George follows in the steps of other Capra idealists who have their faith in themselves and their conservative values severely tested.  But when he’s at the brink of giving up, his faith is restored by those very people he has spent a lifetime teaching through words and by example.  Coming to his financial rescue in a tear-jerking finale, they prove to George that they have learned (while he has forgotten) his great lesson: people’s most important investments are not in stocks, bonds, or property, but in each other. Throughout we get teary-eyed not from sadness but because George (mostly) and others do good deeds.
The success of this film surely has to do with how reassuring it is: not only do you have a family who adores you, a hometown sweetheart who loves and marries you, a guardian angel (Travers is great!) who loves and protects you, but also an entire town of people who love you and come to your aid when you’re in trouble.
This film allowed Stewart to show how great an actor he was, as his character ranges from optimistic hick philosopher to the pessimistic postwar figure he’d play in Vertigo and Anthony Mann westerns.  Likewise, the film itself ranges from riotous comedy to dreadful nightmare, allowing the rest of the wonderful cast to exhibit versatility. Also with: Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen (as the first Bert and Ernie), H.B. Warner, Gloria Grahame, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Frank Albertson, Virginia Patton, Bobbie Anderson (George as a boy), Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Sheldon Leonard, Karolyn Grimes (as Zuzu).

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