George Bailey (James Stewart) is a tired, frustrated man. He had wanted to see the world, but the needs of his Savings and Loan company in the small town of Bedford Falls and his determination to keep local banker and miser Mr Potter from controlling all of the town’s lending have kept him from travelling as he had hoped to. One Christmas Eve, a mix-up by a colleague when paying money into the bank leaves the Savings & Loan company on the brink of ruin and George Bailey in despair. As he stands on a bridge over a swirling river, he wishes he were dead, indeed that he had never been born and so a kindly angel, Clarence, visits him to show him how life might have been for his friends and family.
I suppose this perennial festive classic has been done to death now, even on this site. It got the retrospective treatment earlier this year by Natalie and Jon reviewed the BD re-release little over a month ago. But it’s Christmas, so why not enjoy it all over again?
As Jon rightly notes, IAWL has invaded the collective consciousness like few other films, with everything from Nic Cage’s The Family Man, to episodes of pretty much every sit-com you could think of riffing on its themes of “what might my life have been like?” Even Friends mentioned it once, with Phoebe bemoaning that it should be renamed, “it’s a sucky life and just when you think it can’t suck any more, it does”, though she had to confess to not having seen the film through to the end, when, needless to say, all is set right in every conceivable way.
It is a film beautifully written, performed and shot, threading through darker elements (mental illness, bereavement, suicide, death, drunkenness, despair) with such aplomb you almost don’t notice how bleak many of its themes really are. It ends on so joyous a note, children will love it, yet its broader arcs will appeal to and resonate with grown-ups who will themselves at times have wondered, “how might things have worked out differently”.
With the spectre of financial ruin hanging over George Bailey and the prospect of him being worth more dead than alive (due to the payout on his life policy), contemporary relevance could not be more stark. With his children shielded from all that is happening to him, they are excited about Christmas, yet his devoted and loving wife sees in his eyes that all is not well. As he snaps at his kids, I find myself wincing, realising how often the pressures of life can cause me to be short with those dearest to me.
Given his imperious CV, it is saying something to postulate that Jimmy Stewart has never been better cast than as George, hitting all the right notes of hope, despair, youthful exuberance and world-weary cynicism. Lionel Barrymore is wonderful as the curmudgeonly Mr Potter and Henry Travers makes a wonderful Clarence, finally earning his much-deserved wings as the credits role. Much praise should also be heaped on Donna Reed as George’s beloved wife Mary. She is so beautifully supportive of and loving towards George, his anchor through all of the turmoil that threatens to engulf him. The film opens on her prayers (and those of others) for George floating up through the heavens, requiring a stonier heart than mine to keep from welling up.
The film is about restoring hope, loving the life you have and coming to terms with the choices you have made. It is not about grimly accepting your lot in life, rather it is about finding joy in all that is around you and recognising the worth of that. A beautiful film for a beautiful time of the year.