This is the sixth in a series of posts, The Twelve Days of Christmas Movies. Each one will review/talk about a different Christmassy film and the whole thing spans 12 days – one film per day. You can read the original post about it (which also lists all 12 days of movies) here.
Thanks to the portrayal of family Christmases in American films, my own family and I have been (for quite some time) under the impression that all citizens of the United States spend the whole of December sitting around and watching old black-and-white movies. This probably seems incredibly strange to real-life Americans, but when you watch lots of live-action films set in December, it comes across that people watch black-and-white films an awful lot, especially at Christmas time. I understand this likely isn’t really true (my family have also previously thought that Americans often walk around outside in their pyjamas – something not frequently seen in Britain), but it still is a recurring theme in many Christmas movies. The reason I brought this is up is because one of the old films most often shown being watched in such movies is also the one I watched today: It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life, which stars James Stewart in the role of the protagonist, basically comes across as being the Christmas movie. It’s the one that is shown as the most famous and best-loved in popular culture, and not only in films where the characters watch it. It’s mentioned in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, has been voted America’s favourite Christmas movie multiple times, and is even referenced in Olivia Newton John and John Travolta’s newest song (watch at your own risk). It’s the highest IMDB-rated film on this list and easily the most emotional. Today was the second time I’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life, but it was nevertheless as impressive as last time.
To give you an idea of the plot without any major spoilers, it’s mostly about the life of a man named George Bailey (James Stewart). Despite his life-long dream to travel the world, George is repeatedly forced to stay in his hometown of Bedford Falls due to his responsibilities there. He eventually marries Mary (Donna Reed), does everything for the good of other people, and is constantly harassed by the mean, elderly slumlord Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who wants to either kill or take over the small business George inherited from his father. Many plot summaries will mostly talk about an event later in the film, in which George attempts to commit suicide, only to re-examine the impact of his life with the help of Clarence (Henry Travers), a wing-less guardian angel. However, this doesn’t happen until more than halfway into the film. Although all events prior to that critical one could be seen as little more than build-up, there is as much importance in George’s “back story” as there is in what happens during and after his attempted suicide.
So, as I mentioned before, It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, popular Christmas movie that is a festive holiday staple in many parts of the world (but primarily America). I would say that it is thoroughly deserving of this recognition, especially given that it initially underperformed at the box office. It’s one of those films that, while you’re watching, you forget is a film. The acting, plot, script – it’s all so (im)perfectly natural that you forget all about technicalities like camera angles and use of lighting. For someone like me, who normally over-analyses these films to the point of annoyance, this makes it a real pleasure to watch.
The theme of the film, which is one of the most memorable aspects of it, is also a lovely one. I can’t say exactly what it is – for fear of giving away what happens – but I will say that it is a genuinely heart-warming one that doesn’t come across as at all contrived. Although there are some scenes in the film that are emotional in a less positive way, some being even painful to watch, the end makes it all worthwhile.
Not that this film is all drama and emotion, though. There is humour as well. When they are younger, George and his brother Harry joke about with their family, friends, and maid, with funny results. Throughout the film, offhand comments are made that cause questioning looks from other characters, which is entertaining to watch. The acting – which is of a very high standard – in this film really makes a difference here, as the people in it can express so much (whether happy, sad, or humorous) in a brief look or a prolonged close-up. There’s no need for a laugh track or in-your-face jokes in It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, the subtlety of some of the dialogue’s comedy is what makes it so good. The film reminded me fondly of To Kill a Mockingbird in this respect, in that it doesn’t require over-the-top or unrealistic events and statements to be funny; in contrast, the natural humour in It’s a Wonderful Life is partially what makes it come across as a more honest movie.
Because I have talked about the subject of religiousness in Christmas movies quite a bit in previous Twelve Days of Christmas posts, I feel I should address it in It’s a Wonderful Life. The Christian, religious element is clearly present in it, but this film is an example of the theme being used well. It contributes to the plot, is not preachy, and can be, in a way, appreciated by people regardless of faith. When you think about it, the influence of praying, angels, God, and so on in the movie could easily be substituted by another spiritual entity. For instance, karma and the inherently good nature of humankind play equally important roles in the story. Christianity’s role in the film is more of a moralistic, redeeming – rather than Biblical – one. In contrast to A Charlie Brown Christmas, this movie aims for the reasons behind the Christian aspect of Christmas, instead of just the face value of it. I don’t know what everyone else’s views are on this, but I find this sort of approach to be immensely preferable.
I can see entirely why It’s a Wonderful Life is such a Christmas classic film – it has all the elements of the perfect one. It’s not an overly complex or self-confident film; it’s just a simple, genuinely good one. You can’t really pick faults with the individual parts of the movie, but, at the same time, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful film in itself, and I would recommend that anyone who hasn’t seen this film yet should do so, and soon. Besides – what better time to see an old, black-and-white film than at Christmas time?
Overall rating: 9/10
Christmassy-ness rating: 7/10 (most of the Christmassy element appears in the latter half of the film, and it’s worth noting that the emphasis here is on the spirit of the holiday, not so much the symbols)
Mary’s parental guidance rating: PG
Tomorrow’s film: How the Grinch Stole Christmas