Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Capsule Review: It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

Frank Capra was saddled with a reputation for sentimentality and idealism, but he was also willing to confront some very dark themes in his films - usually buoyed by his clean-cut heroes. Despite its reputation as a holiday classic, darkness permeates this tale of broken dreams and evil men, which makes its ending - where things really do turn out ok - even more emotional. Jimmy Stewart came of age in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and similarly here we see him slowly broken into pieces in a way that only Stewart can embody. Facing the closure of his business and possible arrest (thanks to the machinations of the perfectly evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore)), Stewart's George Bailey drunkenly tries to kill himself before being shown what the world would have been like without him by Clarence, his guardian angel. While the idea of angels is introduced early on, Capra is smart to keep his fantasy elements firmly grounded in reality with the danger of George's financial and emotional collapse always lurking at the surface. Your tolerance for schmaltz may be tested, but for those in the proper spirit this deserves its position as the ultimate holiday classic.

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