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Film Review: It's a Wonderful Life
In 1946, Frank Capra released It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the 1939 short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Travers it grossed $3.3 million at the box office.
George Bailey has given up on his dreams in order to help others and considers suicide on Christmas Eve. However, Clarence Odbody intervenes and shows him how he has touched everyone in his community of Bedford Falls.
Homaged by so many television series for special episodes, It's a Wonderful Life deserves all of them as it's an incredibly great and well-made film. The reason being is in the kind of person George is. He’s always putting the lives of others and their well-being and comfort ahead of his and wants to look out for the town, doing so at the sacrifice of his hopes and dreams. An entire lifetime of that can surely be frustrating, especially when no one makes note of their appreciation, but the biggest kick to the gut is when Potter threatens to wrongfully charge him with the theft of $8,000 from his family’s savings and loan business. This is really what kicks off the plot drives George to drink and contemplate suicide. Yet, what Clarence shows him helps him to understand just how much he means not only to the people that he’s met but the entire town. Without him, Bedford Falls would be a soulless city owned by Potter. It’s a great demonstration of the domino effect and how the choices and actions of one person can change everything. When George comes back from the brink, everyone he’s ever helped comes to his aide and donates all the money that he lost. His stunned silence isn’t due to ungratefulness, it’s shock and awe in that he finally sees that he’s appreciated and really doesn’t know how to thank that many people because he’s never been on the receiving end. While he may never be able to improve his life, knowing that people appreciate him is reward enough. If the ending wasn’t enough to show how much people think of George, when he’s getting drunk and Mr. Welch decks him, the entire bar moves to make sure he’s all right.
Mr. Potter is also a great foil to George. While the former is cold, conniving and just wants to continuously make money, the latter is warm, inviting and, as stated earlier, wants what’s best for the town. Potter doesn’t care about anyone other than himself while George doesn’t care about himself at all. Potter also can’t seem to comprehend good at all. He assumes that a crowd running onto the Building & Loan is a lynch mob other than a desperate crowd, he can’t understand why Bailey is respected even though he doesn’t make much money, and has no clue why George created the business or that creating decent housing is rewarding in and of itself. His taunt that George should ask the townspeople for the money he accused him of stealing also backfired tremendously. He thought they’d run him out of town. Instead, as stated above, they rally to him and give him all the money he needs.
It’s also interesting in how Clarence stops George from committing suicide by getting the man to notice him. As a child, George stopped his brother from drowning. So, making use of George’s habit of helping people, he decides to jump in a river and pretend to drown. It’s a great way to begin to help George understand that helping people isn’t entirely fruitless and leads to other things down the line. There’s also the conversation between Clarence and Franklin at the beginning of the film, where they see being discouraged as a worse problem and more of a reason to intervene than sickness because that’s what leads to “throwing away God’s greatest gift.” This is compounded by the scenes before that. After George has his mental breakdown and leaves to contemplate taking his life, his wife calls everyone and the film opens with them praying that George overcome his troubles. Cutting immediately to those angels shows that not only is God hearing those prayers, but has already started working on answering them.
On the other hand, it can be frustrating that Potter gets off so easily with George not being able to live his dreams, but the film implies that Potter will die alone and shows that George's life isn't over yet. His internal conflict is resolved, the movie ends on a high note and there's no telling where George’s life will go from here.
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Golden Globe Awards
- Best Director
Cinema Writers Circle Awards
- Best Foreign Film
National Board of Review Awards
- Top Ten Films
National Film Preservation Board
- National Film Registry
New York Film Critics Circle Awards
- Third Place - Best Director
Online Film & Television Association Awards
- OFTA Film Hall of Fame - Motion Picture
Young Artist Awards
- Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award (Jimmy Hawkins)
- Best Picture
- Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Stewart)
- Best Director
- Best Sound, Recording
- Best Film Editing