Review: Frank Capra’s Christmas Classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE Starring James Stewart

5 out of 5 stars

It’s A Wonderful Life is an all time cinematic classic, and there is very little that I can say about Frank Capra‘s 1946 film that hasn’t already been said. I’ll give it a go anyway…

James Stewart gives a mesmerising performance as George Bailey, the small town dreamer with high aspirations who, following a series of setbacks in life, ends up running the family business; a local building and loan. George has lived an enjoyable life, helping the residents of Bedford Falls buy their own homes and helping them have enough money to lead  normal lives with their families – much to the annoyance of the town’s richest man Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). When on a snowy Christmas eve George’s uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces $8000 it looks like George’s world is about to crumble. Worrying about the scandal and gossip affecting his family George realises that he is worth more dead than alive and decides to throw himself off a bridge. 

However, just before he commits the act Clarence (Henry Travers) – George’s Guardian Angel – jumps into the icy waters. Seeing the man drowning George dives in to save him. Clarence explains to George that he has helped so many over the course of his lifetime and that it would be a shame to die in such a way. A bitter and angry George tells the angel that he wishes that he’d never been born – Clarence grants the wish showing a Bedford Falls devoid of love, warmth and affection – all given my George over the course of his lifetime.

Based on the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern It’s A Wonderful Life is a true cinematic masterpiece that would melt the coldest of hearts. I know that statement is a tired cliché – but it is very true. The heart of the film is Stewart’s magnificent performance, his first in many years due to his WWII military service. Stewart shows excellent range in his “everyman” persona that that has made him a legend. He is easily able to show George grow from a young man in his early twenties to a middle aged business man without the use of prosthetics or fancy cinematic gimmicks. He is surrounded by excellent support including Donna Reed as his devoted wife and the previously mentioned Barrymore, Mitchell and Travers.

Part comedy, drama and fantasy film It’s A Wonderful Life delivers on all levels, and its two hour running time manages to cram in a few important decades of US history. Originally overlooked on its original release, the film only became popular due to a clerical error that led to the film falling into the public domain – meaning that television stations could show it free of charge. It was this heavy rotation that brought the film back to the public conscience and rightfully lifted the film from obscurity to masterpiece status.

When watching It’s A Wonderful Life it is easy to see that film is a legitimate art form and that Hollywood really doesn’t make them like this anymore.