“No man is a failure who has friends.”
Response to Peary’s Review:
To that end, as Peary notes, this was the film that finally allowed “Stewart to show how great an actor he was, as his character ranges from optimistic hick philosopher to the pessimistic postwar figure he’d play in Vertigo and [various] Anthony Mann westerns”. Stewart (who Peary names Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book) never shies away from portraying George Bailey as a complex man with unmet needs. He “has sacrificed all his life for others’ happiness and security”, but not selflessly — rather, he fully recognizes that he’s had to give up on his own goal of traveling the world and living a life of adventure and discovery. We find our shoulders drooping in empathy as George is foiled time and again from actually leaving Bedford Falls; and yet each time, we understand why he makes the (sacrificial) choice he does.
Indeed, as much of a fantasy as It’s a Wonderful Life is, it actually presents a very realistic view of the curveballs life throws out: who among us can’t remember a time when we’ve been forced by circumstances beyond our control (whether money, family, or something else entirely) to make a decision other than the one we most want for ourselves? And while it’s true that the “nightmarish sequence” in which George is shown “what a dreadful place Bedford Falls would have been without him” probably isn’t very realistic, it doesn’t need to be: it’s meant simply to help George realize “that every man makes a profound difference, and that a good man… can benefit countless people” in unimaginable ways.
Stewart’s performance isn’t the only memorable one on display. Donna Reed takes the incredibly tricky role of Mary — someone who could easily be portrayed as merely a smalltown “anchor” weighing George down — and turns her into someone we can’t help falling for ourselves; no wonder George decides to settle down and have a family with her. Travers is also “great” in another challenging role; he somehow manages to make us believe that guardian angels might actually exist. Meanwhile, there really are countless well-written (by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) scenes and sequences scattered throughout the film, too many to name — though I must call out one early scene in particular (in which young George [Bobbie Anderson] prevents his employer [H.B. Warner] from making a fatal mistake while preparing a prescription for a family) as an emotionally loaded favorite. The story neatly builds to its celebrated finale, which is guaranteed to have you all choked up. Indeed, you’ll be surprised by how sincerely effective this notorious “Capra-corn” really is.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)