MRR Movie Review: It's a Wonderful Life

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George Bailey spends his entire life giving up his big dreams for the good of his town, Bedford Falls, as we see in flashback. But in the present, on Christmas Eve, he is broken and suicidal over the misplacing of an $8000 loan and the machinations of the evil millionaire, Mr. Potter. His guardian angel, Clarence, falls to Earth, literally, and shows him how his town, family, and friends would turn out if he had never been born. George meant so much to so many people; should he really throw it all away?
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Movie Review: "It's a Wonderful Life"

-- Rating: UR
Length: 130 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 7, 1947
Directed by: Frank Capra
Genre: Drama/Fantasy

Filmmakers often combine elements from the drama and fantasy genres to tell fanciful tales that attempt to sweep audiences into their worlds. Some of the great classics of cinema have used this technique. "It's a Wonderful Life" stands the test of time as one of the defining films resulting from this combination of genres.

"It's a Wonderful Life" tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart). George is a successful businessman with a perfect family. He relies on his loan business to support his lovely wife, Mary (Donna Reed), and four beautiful children. When his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses the money that George's business owes the bank on Christmas Eve, the main character becomes morose and contemplates suicide. An angel by the name of Clarence (Henry Travers) appears and shows George how life would be if he'd never lived.

The top-notch performances by the cast make the film unforgettable. Stewart, Reed, Mitchell, Travers, and Lionel Barrymore, who plays the bank owner named Mr. Potter, are all key stars of the 1940s. Stewart delivers a realistic, if often over-the-top, performance in a style that was very common during this period in movie history. Reed's performance clearly shows Mary's love for her husband. Mitchell brings a great supporting character to life, which enhances each of the scenes he appears in. Barrymore's iconic villain seems to be the basis for many modern antagonists. However, Travers steals the show with a heartfelt portrayal of an all-too-human angel trying to get his wings.

The cinematography in "It's a Wonderful Life" follows an approach that was very common during this era. Modern audiences may struggle with the more theater-style filming choices and set designs, and transitions may appear jarring when compared to contemporary films. However, this is expected when movies are more than sixty-five years old. The original black-and-white version of the film utilizes all of the elements of set lighting, especially shadowing techniques, found in the best films of that era, creating striking images that may resonate with older viewers and fans of classic cinema. Some of these elements may not translate well to younger viewers who are more familiar with films from the digital era of the film industry.

Excellent writing brings the story to life throughout the movie. Actors strut around the sets and deliver lines that appear to come from the heart, whether they're lamenting the unexpected loss of the business' money or embracing each other in a moment of pure joy. The skilled writers of "It's a Wonderful Life" created some of the most memorable lines in cinematic history, and many viewers will be caught up in the film's simple plot elements, such as an angel getting its wings when a bell rings. The pacing of the film draws heavily from the writing, as quick-paced dialogue is often intermingled with scenes depicting Christmas in the '40s. Each scene seems tailored to an audience in need of an inspirational message, with moviegoers following the highs and lows of George as he struggles to discover his place in the world. The ending of the movie is a feel-good experience that delivers a timeless message that resonates with modern audiences as it did with viewers living in the period following World War II.

Frank Capra's directorial effort is one of the best elements of the film. Taking a cue from theatrical performances, Capra stages each scene in a beautiful fashion that incorporates both elements from the background and the actors into a seamless whole. His skilled direction allows the actors to deliver their lines from just the right spot on the set and in just the right manner to create a suspension of disbelief that immerses moviegoers in the more fantastical elements of the film.

The plot flows beautifully from one scene to the next, creating a wonderful sense of continuity. Occasional pacing hiccups do appear when the movie is forced to linger on scenery or attempt to create a more visual message without focusing on the main characters, but these instances are not likely to detract from the audience's overall experience in any meaningful way.

"It's a Wonderful Life" remains one of cinema's great films. It is a worthy piece to add to any holiday collection and is a great choice for family movie night during the holiday season. The artful delivery of well-written dialogue and excellent cinematographic choices help this movie stand out as one of the best holiday films. The film's inspirational theme and the skillful performances of iconic actors combine to deliver a timeless message perfect for viewers of all ages.

Rating: 4 out of 5