Told the boys that I was in pretty rough shape. All of us are bagged anyway, being underslept. Max had never seen this - Capra's masterpiece? - and that was all the excuse I needed. This was easily my third full viewing but only the first time that I've really paid attention to it. I've always been put off by the Spiritualism 101 of the thing, but this aspect is actually not laid on too thick and there's enough humor around the edges of it to make the religion more functional than fundamental. Naturally, I've always been drawn to the populism and in my present state it worked for me in spades, however mythical the Main Street communitarianism. But what really knocked me out this time was how well the film is crafted. The performances are fabulous and the staging is rock solid. Most of all though, the story-telling skill is top flight. Not just the hard-hitting speeches and tender moments. The linking passages and seemingly-but-really-not throw-away bits. Everything in the script is economically brought to bear, nothing is wasted. It's tight as a drum. The way it's written, story-boarded, edited - it's cinematic narration that is impossible not to understand. The irresistibly inspiring message was most welcome too.
Glad that the film could buoy your spirits. It has always been one of my favourites. Here's what I wrote about the film for Apollo guide, so many years ago:
The pivotal moment in It's a Wonderful Life clearly defines its central character, George Bailey. Standing on a bridge, contemplating suicide, Bailey (played to small-town perfection by James Stewart) instead finds himself leaping into the water to save someone else, a 'man' who turns out to be his guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers in a sweet performance). Director Frank Capra shows us what makes Bailey such a great man: even in his moment of greatest despair, George risks his life to save someone he doesn't even know.
George Bailey is an admirable character. He always does what's right, often sacrificing his own dreams for the good of his family, friends and community. And, up until shortly before that moment on the bridge, he does so without complaining or falling into self-pity or loathing. This is what makes his ethical battle on the bridge so compelling. By the time George hits rock bottom, as a result of a crisis that was no fault of his own, we have accompanied him on such a fascinating ride that we can't help but pray that it turns out well for him.
It's a Wonderful Life is Capra's take on A Christmas Carol, with a few twists and modifications. Henry Potter (the great Lionel Barrymore) is the equivalent of Scrooge, George Bailey is Cratchit, Clarence is all of the ghostly visitors combined into one, while George’s child Zuzu is a slightly healthier Tiny Tim. In his Americanisation of the Dickens classic (which started off as a writer’s Christmas card short story and eventually wended its way into Capra’s hands), the famed director of feel-good movies gives Bailey the moral dilemma and chance at redemption, while leaving Potter to rot in his own stench.
It is interesting that Wonderful Life was not a big hit at the time. The American people in 1946 were not in need of the feel-good mythology Capra thought they were. The top picture that year was The Best Years of Our Lives. Rather than ignore the reality of the ravages of the war, they wanted pointed recognition of it.