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Itís a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra) 1946

 

    Itís a Wonderful Life is such a sacred cow of American cinema that it seems petty to complain about it, and, for what itís worth, thereís little about it that bugs me. I certainly have a problem with the arch simplicity of Mr. Potter, the villain, which feels far too easy and cheap to let him be as effective a character as he might otherwise be. Certainly, the way the Bailey family condescends toward their black maid irks me every time I see the film as well. The nostalgic, overly patriotic attitude toward WWII seems as if it must have felt like sap even at the time of the filmís initial release. The suggestions at the filmís start that Jimmy Stewartís character is 22 (the actor was 38) and Donna Reedís is 18 (she was 25) feel phony. Finally, there seems to be a moral simplicity that feels far too clean for a film that wants to make us feel as if we have gone through the worst of times. I canít imagine Jimmy Stewart actually dishonoring his fatherís memory, no matter how far heís thought he sunk, and that Capra canít either is somewhat disappointing. The filmís idea of a good man seems to be one that possesses the ability to reject all personal desires and conform to a community standard.   

    Still, despite any nay saying that I might work up, I enjoy watching the film. It has an uncanny ability to silence cynics like myself. So many of the scenes in the film work, that itís no wonder that it stands as a perennial Holiday favorite for so many viewers, despite the fact that most of the film doesnít have anything to do with Christmas. My favorite aspect of the film is the romance between Stewart and Donna Reed, which is exceptionally well written and feels endearing enough that we donít mind the sappiness. A lot of the filmís funniest moments are found in this subplot, and itís amazing that this material has aged as well as it has. Capra, whatever your opinion of his work might be, certainly knew what he was doing when he made a film, and that ability to cross gender, temporal, and cultural borders is decidedly admirable. Most of the dramatic scenes here also work well. In fact the only character besides Potter that really feels false is Clarence, the guardian angel. Ultimately a review of Itís a Wonderful Life feels superfluous. Youíve all seen it, I imagine. Iíve seen it several times before, and I am sure Iíll see it several times more. Iíll just stop nowÖ 

Happy HolidaysÖ 

***1/2 

12-25-01 

Jeremy Heilman