Classics Corner: It’s a Wonderful Life

24 12 2014

BEFORE

Everyone, including people like me, has blind spots in their knowledge of classic films from the cinematic canon.  In the past few months, I have only just seen “Gone with the Wind,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Birds,” and “Dead Poets Society.”

Now, I am someone who loves Christmas movies (if you have any doubt, I’ll direct you to my insanely detailed moviegoer’s challenge for “Elf”) and Frank Capra films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (though I am rather blasé about “It Happened One Night“).  So, you would expect that by now, I would have seen the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  If you assumed I had, you would be wrong.

To be clear, it is not for lack of effort.  Two years ago, some friends and I attempted to see a screening held at a local theater.  We deduced that since it was readily available for people to watch at home, the theater would not be crowded.  And we were wrong.  (A humorous aside: they spelled the movie wrong on their marquee. It was a “wonderderful” life, apparently…)

I have also pretty much absorbed the story through cultural osmosis.  Everyone knows the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to some extent, just like they know the shower scene in “Psycho.”  My primary exposure to the film came through – and this will date me tremendously – the 2002 TV movie “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas.”

(Oh, and “Shrek Forever After” too, I suppose.)

But last night, Christmas Eve Eve, I decided it was time to end my ignorance.  Armed with a copy of the DVD acquired from the Houston Public Library, I would finally figure out why the movie is a mainstay of the Christmas season on television.

How to turn it into an interesting blog post, though?  I had the epiphany to essentially live blog my viewing experience and then add in a reflection at the close.  All times listed are from the 60th anniversary DVD (unsure if that changes anything but thought it might be worth noting).  So, without further ado, enjoy my thought process as I experience “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the very first time…

DURING – A RECORDED LIVE BLOG

2:00 – I have to say, the audible prayers of the people for George Bailey being uttered over just an exterior shot of their houses was very effective.

3:00 – …aaand it’s ruined by the corny flashing stars that speak for God and the celestial beings.  Whomp.

It's a Wonderful Life - God

12:07 – “It’s a good face.  I like George Bailey.”  Solid freeze frame.  Is there anyone who can resist Jimmy Stewart’s charm?  I dare you.

It's a Wonderful Life Freeze Frame

14:02 – Bedford Falls, the town so harmless and innocuous that even the car horns sound like clown horns…

20:57 – Annoying guy is annoying (in the best kind of way).

Stop annoying people

This actually existed on the Internet – I didn’t create it.

21:25 – A Charleston contest!  Heck yes.  Actually, George and his dance partner are not too shabby…

23:10 – Oh, that’s a pool … I was gonna say, what the heck is going to come out of that floor?!  Did not know “It’s a Wonderful Life” had some kind of alien invasion…

25:55 – I don’t know what I find more surprising, the fact that there’s a haunted house in Bedford Falls or that Mary wants to live there.

27:04 – Cutting back to the guy sitting on the porch eavesdropping is a fun touch.

27:17 – Oh, this moon scene was in “Bruce Almighty,” now I remember.  Once again, another way I’ve picked up on the film without actually seeing it.

Bruce Almighty

27:48 – Ah, and the guy talks.  Good gag, glad it didn’t totally flop.  I think it would have worked pretty well had he not said anything.

28:40 – I must say, I’m a total sucker for these sort of classical Hollywood scenes of tame sexual innuendo.  I was wondering what the purpose of the repeated shots of George stepping on Mary’s outfit was … and it turns out to be him inadvertently ripping off her clothes?  Oh, the games budding couples play.

29:34 – George’s father had a stroke as he’s about to get some romantic action with Mary?  Sheesh, that’s inconvenient.

33:33 – There’s the Capra-esque standing up for the decency of the common man.

35:11 – Not the talking stars again.  When is it going to be the “I wish I was never born” part?

42:25 – “Why, it’s 10 miles up to Mt. Bedford!”  Gasp.

46:00 – The mother says, “What does he want?”  The daughter then asks, “What do you want?”  Beautiful synergy.

46:54 – I’ve seen that record breaking scene before in a meme…

49:42 – They are setting a record for close talking…

50:23 – Well, that didn’t take long for a wedding.

51:00 – “If either of you see a stranger around here, it’s me.”  That’s not creepy at all…

58:29 – “Pay it when you can,” something you would never hear a banker in a current movie say.  Come to think of it, you’d never really see them be kind or have a soul at all.

1:02:40 – “Welcome home, Mr. Bailey.”  So I guess this is the model of domesticity for that time?

1:05:17 – “Salt, that life may always have flavor.”  Oy, that’s a lot of corniness to handle.

1:14:23 – “George Bailey Lassos Stork!”  Such a strange way to announce a pregnancy…

1:14:52 – Narrator is back, but no flashing stars.  Phew.

1:16:10 – Poor George fighting the Battle of Bedford Falls because his bad ear.  Too bad they couldn’t give him the full Captain America treatment…

1:16:50 – “10:00 A.M. Bedford Falls time,” as if they’re important enough to have their own time zone.

1:21:30 – Nice crow in the office.

It's a Wonderful Life Raven

1:30:00 – Nice use of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” ironically underscoring George Bailey’s meltdown…

1:32:00 – Ok, now seems about time for this darned angel to drop in…

1:35:47 – Now what is this strange music underscoring George’s moment of crisis at the bar?

1:36:40 – Who would have the nerve to punch Jimmy Stewart in the face?!  Who?

1:39:00 – If I didn’t know how this movie ended, the look on Jimmy Stewart’s face would have totally convinced me he would jump off that bridge.  That was some mad desperation he conveyed.

1:41:00 – Finally, the angel!

1:43:50 – Alas, “I wish I had never been born!”  Did not realize it would take this long.

1:46:20 – Oh shoot, the town is called Pottersville now?!  Dang, big businessmen are evil and selfish.

1:48:40 – “Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel’s just got his wings.”  So this is responsible for that quote too?!  I would have sworn it was a “Peter Pan” offshoot or something.

1:51:50 – Nice “Twilight Zone” style music to play underneath George’s realization that he actually has never been born.

1:52:40 – Phew, glad Clarence didn’t have a drink!

1:53:20 – Sex and booze everywhere in Pottersville, dang.

1:59:10 – “You really had a wonderful life.”  And there’s the title!

2:00:00 – Mary, so bookish now…

2:02:30 – So George is back, and his voice has raised a full octave into almost Adam Sandler territory.

2:06:00 – Well, it sure is nice to see a good man get what he deserves.

2:07:30 – And it all comes full circle with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”  Not bad, Capra.

2:08:45 – “No man is a failure who has friends.”  That’s a nice message to end on.

It's a Wonderful Life ending

AFTER

Here’s an intriguing case of how preconceived notions affect the viewing experience.  I went into “It’s a Wonderful Life” assuming that Capra would begin with George Bailey at the end of his rope and be contemplating suicide almost from the outset rather than as a third-act twist.  Since that’s what most people tend to talk about when they talk about the movie, I presumed it would make up the bulk of the film.

But the film was not just about George Bailey, it was about an entire community and all the different people he touched.  My hyperfocus on George, as can be seen in my commentary above, precluded me from noting much about the other people of Bedford Falls.  Keeping up with them and seeing their change without George in their lives might have allowed the big finale to land with a little more impact than it did.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is clearly not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination.  I am certainly not prepared to dub it overrated or a disappointment, either.  Now that I have seen the film in its entirety, I can begin to see Capra’s work as it really is rather than what culture has construed it to be.  Any subsequent viewings would allow me to adjust my frame of reference for viewing and further appreciate it.

But, to be honest, I’m not rushing to replace “Elf’ or “Love Actually” on my Christmas movie traditions.  “It’s a Wonderful Life” ends quaintly on Christmas, but it is not really a movie about or informed by the holiday season.  It is a bit like “Home Alone” in that sense; you could set it during another celebratory day and very little about the plot would change.

I am sure this is not the last time I will curl up with “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  I do not, however, expect the next time to be in the next few Christmases.

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