1946; directed by Frank Capra; written by Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett; 130 mins
Well, it’s Christmas, so I figured I’d finally catch up with the Frank Capra family favourite and only now do I think I am so glad that it was great! God knows I never expected it to start the way it starts – with galaxies talking to one another! These galaxies are God, Saint Peter and a second class angel called Clarence who needs to save James Stewart‘s George Bailey from committing suicide in order to earn his wings and become a fully-fledged angel. God then shows Clarence all of George Bailey’s life to date and we learn what a pillar of his local community he was in the little town of Bedford Falls.
Reluctant heir to a Building and Loans office run by his father, George wants to travel the world and see new places rather than get tied down to his local town. However, in the wake of his father’s death and with his younger brother unable to take over because of college commitments, George must take over and fight against the encroaching menace of bank manager and miser, Henry Potter. George is a good, honest man who goes his utmost to do what he sees as morally right and for the good of his community… and it’s mushy as all Hell and I loved it!
This is one of those cultural touchstones that must be the prototype of the phrase; “The highs are so high because the lows are so low” (or whichever way round it goes) because you wouldn’t get that euphoric sense of yuletide uplift if the film didn’t go to some very dark places. James Stewart, who did some messed up stuff in the likes of Rear Window and Vertigo, here reaches a fever pitch of desperation and near insanity that still – 70 years on – packs an emotional punch! What makes these extremities work, I think, is that the film’s heart is so firmly wedged in the right place that it is impossible for you not to meet it halfway. Not that this is an exercise in manipulation or box-ticking at all, it is instead an idealised, optimistic look at all the best traits of being a good person, something which seems to need to be re-iterated every year, especially at Christmas.
Neither, though, is it a stern lecture on ethics. It is really funny and joyous. I suppose what the film is saying by thrusting the emotions in our face is that look at what could happen of we let our emotions get the better of us more often. Our hearts aren’t always right but then neither are our heads forever making the correct decisions.
As for the cast, well, Stewart is his usual everyman but with real passion in his performance and gets supported by a great cast of actors, not least of which is Henry Travers as wannabe angel Clarence and Donna Reed as wife and long-term sweetheart, Mary, every bit the strong support without who George definitely would’ve shuffled off earlier.