What to say about a beloved classic that one has seen umpteen times? Frank Capra and James Stewart came back from war still at the peak of their powers.
Heaven has been getting many prayers for the welfare of one George Bailey (Stewart). Joseph, apparently some celestial big wig, assigns Angel Second-Class Clarence (Henry Travers) to help him out. This is Clarence’s big break in his 200 year quest to earn his wings. Bailey is slated to attempt suicide in an hour and Clarence is given that time to get to know George.
The movie flashes back to the key incidents in George’s live. These range from saving his brother from drowning to saving his father’s building and loan from a bank run. Key is his romance and marriage with Mary (Donna Reed). George has spent his life deferring his own dreams for the sake of others. In the process, he, as the president of the building and loan has built an affordable housing development and earned the enmity of banker and slum lord Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
George’s crisis comes when his simple-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces an $8,000 deposit of building and loan funds on the very day the bank examiner is in town. This also happens to be Christmas Eve. In reality, Uncle Billy accidentally folded the money in a newspaper he handed to Potter, who is now ready to get his revenge. With an arrest warrant sworn out against him, George is ready to give up when Clarence stops him from a fatal jump into the river.
It seems like George’s case might be too much even for an angel. Then Clarence gets the idea of showing George what life in Bedford falls might have been like without him. With Beulah Bondi as George’s mother, H.B. Warner as a dipsomaniac druggist, Gloria Grahame as the town “bad girl”, and Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as Bert and Ernie (!), a cab driver/policeman duo.
I always forget that It’s a Wonderful Life is about half over before Clarence and George meet. My favorite part is the first half, mostly because I am nuts about the George-Mary romance with the dance contest, telephone, and honeymoon scenes being the standouts. I have this one neck and neck with It Happened One Night as the best film Frank Capra ever made. It is full of post-war darkness yet with an optimism about the essential goodness of humans that is touching. Much more than a Christmas movie.
It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Picture; Best Actor; Best Director; Best Sound, Recording; and Best Film Editing.