Today! Because I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and next year, and the year after that –
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring James Stewart (x4), Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell (x2), Ward Bond (x3), Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame (x2), Henry Travers, Frank Faylen (x2), H.B. Warner (x2), Todd Karns, Virginia Patton, Sheldon Leonard, Frank Albertson, Samuel Hinds, Mary Treen, Charles Williams, Lillian Randolph, Charles Lane (x3), Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer (x2)
The movie I’ve seen in a theater the most times (eleven, as of this writing), It’s a Wonderful Life is still the only movie 100% guaranteed to transform me into a weepy, blubbery mess. And it’s not a gradual thing either – I’m in rough shape almost from minute one, when you hear all the townsfolk praying for George. It’s not just my favorite Christmas movie, and my vote for best Christmas movie ever made, it also features the Best Swimming Pool Dance Party in film history, and is the only movie I can think of where a man carries a pie in each hand and one on top of his head at the same time.
Every time but one that I’ve seen this movie in theaters was a December in Chicago at the Music Box, coupled with White Christmas (Yes, your memory serves you right! The movie I’ve seen in theaters the second-most times!) as part of their Christmas Spectacular. We make right obnoxious yuletide embarrassments of ourselves, the wife and I wearing matching Bailey Building and Loan sweatshirts, bedecked with jingle bells and singing along to Christmas carols before and between the films. It’s gross, I know! Shut up!
And unlike every other Christmas movie on this list, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t a movie I grew up watching. I mean, it’s a little long and very black & white for kids, so unless your parents were way into this film, you likely gravitated more toward the fun and funny holiday flicks than this. It also does have a soul-crushing middle section, when George’s life begins unraveling thanks in no small part to Uncle Billy’s boneheadedness, plus most of the actual fantasy sequence of the film isn’t overly joyous either (or teeming with dazzling effects which might enthrall the kiddies). But all this is vitally necessary to the plot – there isn’t one extraneous part of the movie’s long lead up to Clarence’s first appearance on that bridge. It all adds up and helps deliver the devastatingly joyous ending – the happiest in film history. The whole town comes together! Mary did it, George, Mary did it! All she had to say was George was in trouble and people pitched in! No man is a failure who has friends! I’m getting a little misty just thinking about it.
This film obviously has one of the larger fluctuations across this list’s history, depending on when new versions are compiled. What you’ve gotten to experience here was put together in a summer, and so IaWL landed on the far end of the top 20, but come the winter this film has climbed damn near the top ten, and I want to say it might’ve landed in 9th once? Even though very little of the movie actually takes place at Christmastime – just the entire fantasy stretch – it still gets that natural bump thanks to its relevant holiday spirit and Janie practicing that song over and over again for the party tonight. Hell, “Auld Lang Syne” is probably more associated with this film than any carol. Or “Buffalo Gals” – a song I’m pretty sure is about New York state hookers.
So what can we take It’s a Wonderful Life to task for? Sure, it’s a near-perfect beloved classic, but yes, it does run a full 130 minutes – not exactly Love Actually, but that is still a helluva holiday runtime. It’s a bit sentimental about backwoods hometowns (which we can all agree are super overrated, right?), and is a bit jingoistic, but this was 1946 and the war was only just in the rearview. As Saturday Night Live famously pointed out in its “Lost Ending” sketch, the villain of the piece (Lionel Barrymore’s terrific Potter) receives no manner of comeuppance for nearly destroying George’s life and the Building & Loan. Uncle Billy – who’s literally in an insane asylum in the World Without George – also doesn’t receive any consequences for screwing everything up. Also – what I’ve always wondered – after everyone in town is cracking open their piggy banks to give George money, Sam Wainwright advances him more than enough money to cover the shortfall. So…shouldn’t some of these hardscrabble folks just get handed their cash back, instead of drinking punch and singing songs? Just saying!
But seriously, these are minor complaints. Maybe you found this movie a little slow when you were younger, and I can understand that, but the older you get and the more generally sentimental and nostalgic and considerate of your fellow man (which you all should be, goddammit), the more impactful this movie becomes. It’s a miracle of sweet filmmaking, in all its heart-string pulling glory. Merry Christmas, movie house!
There is a pervasive story floating around about how this movie wasn’t particularly popular or regarded in its day, and that it took decades of re-airings on television to cement its place in the culture. While that might be very slightly true, this was hardly an overlooked picture in 1946 – nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. It won Capra a Golden Globe for his work behind the camera, and was named one of the top ten movies of the year by the National Board of Review. It wasn’t a huge moneymaker, it’s true, but it also wasn’t the colossal flop legend would have you believe.
Also, one more time, I want to give a shout out to the only actor appearing in both ends of the Music Box’s Christmas Spectacular (as mentioned back in #345), Our Gang/Little Rascals great Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer!
Capra’s only list film is also Jimmy Stewart’s ticket to the Four-Timers, after his roles in #170 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, #303 After the Thin Man, and #145 The Philadelphia Story!