January 29, 2011

#29. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

(Part of my series on watching every movie of the IMDB's top 250) Every family has a movie they traditionally watch on Christmas. For some families that movie is A Christmas Story or one of the many versions of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In my family -- we being Italian -- that movie was, of course, The Godfather. And so it wasn't until now that I finally watched this most celebrated of Christmasy movies, It's a Wonderful Life.

In no other movie have I seen such an idealistic portrayal of American civilization throughout the many phases of the early twentieth century. Nor have there been many characters quite as sympathetic and American as the ones played by Jimmy Stewart. In this movie, it's somewhat difficult to pull off given the fact that the 'aww shucks' character of George Bailey (played by Stewart) is a tragic one. He lives exactly the opposite life he wanted for himself in order to satisfy the needs and desires of those around him. He instantly and methodically does what is right, at high cost to himself. And in doing so, grows resentful of a business, community, and family that does not seem to appreciate the sacrifices he has made, and he grows jealous of those who enjoy success in everything he's wanted to do.

Everyone at one point or another has shared George Bailey's feelings of not being appreciated, and maybe (like him) contemplated ending their own lives. But while we never get the catharsis of seeing how different the would would have been without us, Bailey does and discovers the movie's moral: "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

I've never been moved as much by a movie as I was at It's a Wonderful Life's climax, when everyone who has enjoyed material wealth and acclaim off the sweat of George Bailey's brow, toast him as "the richest man in town." And that perhaps the the timeless moral of this great movie. That there is more to life than what you earn and own, and that even those with little in their pockets can be wealthy men indeed.


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