Wednesday, May 15, 2013

10. It's a Wonderful Life

1946; dir. Frank Capra; starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore
My views: 16

I think this may have been the very first "old movie" I ever saw - not counting animated films like Pinocchio and Snow White that I had no idea how old they were - because I remember being confused as to why it was in black and white.  My family and I used to watch this on TV pretty much every Christmas, and one year we taped it, so we watched the taped version for a while until we finally got it on DVD.  Now we watch it at least once every Christmas season and often at Thanksgiving as well.

Even though I've watched and loved this movie for most of my life, it's only been in the last 5 years or so that I've really gotten it.  When I was little, I thought it would be cool to have an angel come down and show you how good your life is, but I have to admit that my favorite part was the beginning because I had a huge crush on young George Bailey.  I now have a pretty big crush on Jimmy Stewart, so I guess some things never change.  Anyway, back then, once he grew up, it got kind of boring until Clarence finally came down and showed him what the world would be like without him.  I hate to make the generalization that kids can't fully appreciate this movie until they grow up, but that's what happened to me.  The year I graduated from high school is the year I watched this movie the most.

When you graduate from high school, everybody tells you to follow your dreams and reach for the stars and all that good stuff.  George Bailey had big dreams of travelling the world and becoming a famous architect, but in the whole movie he never leaves Bedford Falls.  He gives up his dreams of college to take over the family business and let his brother play football, he gives up his dreams of independence to marry the woman he loves, and he passes up the opportunity of getting rich to stand up to a scumbag.  Watching this when I was little, I wondered why he couldn't see how much his life was worth, but when I grew up I realized that he has every reason to think his life sucks.  Nothing went the way he planned.  But I bet if he had gone to college and not married Mary and gone to work for Potter, nobody would have shown up at his house to help him out.  I'm not saying we shouldn't have dreams or plans, but it's kind of true that when things don't go as planned, they end up way better than they would have been otherwise.  I also think that too often in our society, we are told to act in our own best interest first.  George spends his whole life doing things for others.  It's not that he never thinks of himself, because he obviously does, but he helps other people first, and that's what saves him in the end.  From the very beginning, Mary sees that and loves him for it, while George compares his lack of money to Potter's abundant wealth and becomes blind to his own worth.  Maybe this sounds sappy to other people, but to me this film gets at real, deep life issues in a way that very few others do.  And that is why, of all the movies I've seen, this is the one that makes me cry the most.  Well, I did cry all the way through Les Miserables, so I guess second most.  Anyway, I've cried at different parts during different viewings of It's a Wonderful Life, but without fail, I always cry during the "Mr. Gower, you put something wrong in those capsules" scene (because even twelve-year-old George helped people, despite getting slapped in the sore ear for his trouble), and when Harry Bailey - the college football star, the war hero, the success of the family by any normal standards -  raises his glass and toasts, "To my big brother George, the richest man in town."

I think it's interesting that this film is tied with Ishtar (I put this one higher since I know I saw it multiple times before 2003) because Ishtar always makes me think of my mom and It's a Wonderful Life always makes me think of my dad.  For as long as I can remember I've thought of this as my dad's favorite movie.  He was always the family member who was the most excited to watch it at Christmastime and quoted it the most enthusiastically.  Even more than that, though, I've always thought of my dad as being kind of like George Bailey.  It doesn't hurt that they're both deaf in their left ear, but I think there are a lot of deeper similarities as well.  My dad usually puts other people's interests over his own, and in so doing often doesn't realize the tremendous impact he has.  But when he was in the hospital a year ago, the people in his life showed such an outpouring of love and support that it really reminded me of the scene at the end of It's a Wonderful Life when the whole town comes to help George.

I could go on and on forever about this movie, but I'll stop now because this post has already gotten plenty long.  I will warn you, though, that now that we've gotten into the top 10, I'm going to have a lot to say about these films because they've all had a tremendous impact on my life.  Conciseness has never been my strong suit, particularly in topics I'm passionate about.  So be prepared for some long and I hope not too boring posts.

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