Full disclosure: I post this Wednesday series as a way to keep ahead of the volume of movies to be reviewed. Generally the Wednesday posts are not bad movies, not really bad. But I manage to find flaw with every movie I watch. This one is It’s a Wonderful Life, from 1946. That makes it about 72 years old and also the first time I have seen it streaming on Amazon Prime Video, where I obtained the screen shots. Details are from Wikipedia.
I watched it through on my computer, finding it irresistible to pass up so many shots that I wound up with 110 by the time I was finished. I will recap the plot, which everybody should know by now, and I will provide some background.
This film belongs to the late actor James “Jimmy” Stewart. It’s his film more than it belongs to costar Donna Reed or director Frank Capra. Prior to World War Two Jimmy Stewart was a top Hollywood star, headlining famous works, living the life of a film colony playboy, and bedding down with some of the choicest babes on the screen at the time. When the war came he chucked it all, paid for his own flying lessons, and went down to the local recruiting office, where he signed up as a private in the Army. From there he worked his was up to flight leader and led deadly combat missions in B-24 bombers over Europe. He saw many of his command die in those days, but when it was all over he came home and attempted to restart his career. This is his first film after the war.
All right, everybody is aware this is a fairy tail about good over evil, and it’s pure corn. It’s centered in the mythical town of Bedford Falls, which appears to be somewhere in New York. It’s winter, and it’s Christmas Eve. This is a Christmas story.
We see small town Bedford Falls as small towns existed in those days.
But in the distant heavens there is trouble. We see stars wink as angels converse. There is trouble in Bedford Falls, and two angels summon Angel 2nd Class Clarence (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his wings. Did I mention corn? Clarence must do a good deed to get his wings, and the trouble in Bedford Falls is just the package.
But first the background must be explained to Clarence, and also the the viewers. We start back when George Bailey (Stewart) was 12 years old. It’s winter again, and the gang is having winter fun. Here George prepares to shoot down a snowy slope riding a coal scoop onto a frozen pond.
George’s brother Harry (Todd Karns) goes next, and he outdoes them all, sliding out onto the pond where the ice is deadly thin. He breaks through, and George saves his life. But a result is George loses hearing in one ear, dooming him to a lifetime of partial deafness.
Of course the movie needs to have an odious character, and this has one in the form of Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who makes up for having too much money by having absolutely no morals. He’s riding in a horse-drawn carriage, because this is 1919, when the story begins.
We see more of George’s early life in Bedford Falls. That’s young George (Bobby Anderson) working as a soda jerk at Gower’s drug store. Who remembers what a soda jerk was? The blond is Violet Bick (Jeanine Ann Roose), who’s pretty, and she knows it. She is going to grow up to be Gloria Grahame. The girl on the right is Mary Hatch (Jean Gale), who’s going to grow up to be Donna Reed. both girls are trying to charm young George.
Then drama! One of George’s tasks at Gower’s drug store is to deliver prescriptions. But on this day George discovers a telegram relating the death of Mr. Gower’s (H. B. Warner) son. He sees that Mr. Gower is drinking liquor from a bottle. He also notices a bottle containing a poisonous substance, and he becomes disturbed.
George tries to warn Mr. Gower, but Gower tells him to deliver the prescription and to not bother him. George attempts to speak to his father (Samuel S. Hinds), but his uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) tells George that his father is busy with a problem at the Building and Loan that he runs.
The Building and Loan is in financial straits, and they need financial support from Potter. Potter is gleeful at their problems, because he would like the company to go away. Potter wants to lend money at exorbitant rates.
George returns to the drug store without delivering the tainted prescription, and Gower boxes his ear (the bad one) before George is able to explain. When Gower realizes George has saved him from committing negligent homicide, he becomes a George Bailey supporter for life. This is key to the plot.
The two angels bring Clarence forward to 1928, and George Baily has grown up. He’s preparing to leave Bedford Falls, to see the world. He is in a store to purchase a valise, and he shows the clerk just how big. At this point the director freezes the frame so Clarence can get a good look at the subject of his target subject. Here is the frozen frame.
At this point viewers should take a look. Two years before this was taken, Jimmy Stewart was deep into the horrors of war, in combat that took the lives of 50,000 American air crew. What is remarkable is how little time he had to put all that behind him and stand before the cameras for this photo.
The clerk pulls out a large case, and George determines it is just the right size. The clerk tells George the price is right, as well, because Mr. Gower is picking up the tab.
George prepares to leave Bedford Falls and to see the world.
He spies Violet, who really has grown up.
At the Bailey dinner table the talk turns to the need for George to stay on and take over running the Building and Loan. Standard for movies of this era is Lillian Randolph as Annie, a black maid. Yeah, black people still occupied the lower rung, and movies of the time keep us reminded.
George persists in his plan to leave Bedford, and he gives his mother (Beulah Bondi) a playful whirl.
Pa Bailey is disheartened at George’s decision.
Annie butts in.
But George is off to the school reunion dance.
Violet is there, and she still has the hots for George. Truth is, she has the hots for lots of guys.
Old school chums say goodbye to George.
Mary is there, and has she ever grown up. George is captivated to the core.
They dance, and love blossoms.
They participate in the Charleston contest.
George has captured Mary’s heart, and a jealous rival gets exacts some payback. He and a friend activate a switch, which rolls back the dance floor. There is a swimming pool below. George and Mary are the first to splash. The rest, sensing great fun, join in.
George and Mary walk home, singing “Buffalo Gals,” a tune that was popular when I was young.
They pause by the abandoned house to toss rocks at the windows.
Devastation. Word comes that Pa Bailey has died of a stroke. George must stay and take over the Building and Loan.
Harry returns from college with a new bride and a job offer from his father-in-law. George is stuck running the Building and Loan.
George mulls at the cruel blows that have befallen him. In those days everybody smoked in the movies.
But Mary has waited for him. They are deeply in love, and they marry.
And they are off on their honeymoon.
But not so fast. It’s the Great Depression, and there is a run on the local bank.
Trouble stalks the Building and Loan, as well, as depositors line up to withdraw their savings. The B&L cannot repay all depositors’ savings, because the money is lent out.
Potter puts through a phone call to the B&L warning George that if the B&L closes before the scheduled hour it will not be able to open the next day.
Mary shows up with the money they had saved for the honeymoon, and that saves the day as the B&L ends the day with $2 remaining.
Mary leaves George a note to meet her at a certain address. It’s the abandoned house. They are moving in there.
They raise a family, George runs the Building and Loan, and he develops a low-cost housing development called “Bailey Park” for the town’s working class.
George introduces new homeowners to their prospective homes.
Potter finds the B&L a thorn in his side, offering low-cost loans and undercutting his loan shark rates.
Potter calls George in and offers him a job. But George sees through Potter’s scheme and turns down the offer.
At first George shakes Potter’s hand.
Then he realizes that some of that stuff may have rubbed off.
He attempts to remove the stain.
Back home he starts up the stairs, grabbing the wooden knob at the bottom of the banister. It comes off in his hand. This business with the knob is never fixed, and it becomes a link that ties segments of the plot together for the remainder of the movie.
War, and George takes over draft registration for the town. Harry goes off to war.
Other of Georges school chums go off to war, one taking part in seizing the Bridge at Remagen.
Harry becomes a combat pilot, taking part in the war in the Pacific.
George runs commodities rationing for the government.
The war ends.
Harry comes home a hero.
It’s the day before Christmas. Recall, this is a Christmas story. Billy is jubilant. He takes $8000 from the B&L to deposit at the bank and shows the news headlines to Potter.
But Billy has tucked the money inside the newspaper he gave to Potter, and Potter keeps the money. Billy cannot recall what he did with the money.
It’s devastating to the B&L. They are responsible for the loss, and they cannot personally cover it. An audit is scheduled. The B&L will be ruined. The Bailey’s will be prosecuted for theft.
At home George is mean-spirited to his family. They do not know why.
The knob again.
George’s young daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) is sick.
George goes to Potter for financial help. Potter greets him with threats.
George gets drunk at a bar.
He smashes his car into a tree.
He goes to a bridge that crosses the river. Suicide is tempting.
Clarence is watching. He jumps in first.
George jumps in to save Clarence.
Maybe this is a drawbridge, because there seems to be a bridge keeper’s shack. George and Clarence dry off in the shack.
Clarence explains his heavenly mission. George and the bridge keeper are dubious, to say the least.
George tells Clarence he wishes he had never been born.
Clarence grant’s George’s wish. George was never born.
Clarence is going to take George to see how the would would be if he had never been born.
They tour the town.
People on the street do not recognize George. He was never born.
He goes back to the familiar bar. It’s no longer friendly. It’s a real dive.
Mr. Gower shows up. He is the town drunk, just out of prison for manslaughter. George was not there to prevent the tragic poisoning.
The town George sees is low-class.
It is named after Potter, who has taken control.
He runs into Mary. She is a lonely old maid. She has never married. George frightens her.
George gets into a fight with a cop he knew in his life. The cop draws his pistol as George makes a getaway.
George regrets his wish that he was never born.
Clarence undoes the curse, and George is returned to his present life. The cop asks George if he needs help. The episode with the fight never happened.
George is gleeful to be alive.
When he gets home to face his family, the bank examiners are there. There will be a reckoning.
But George does not care. He’s alive.
George embraces his children.
George, Mary, the children, embrace.
Townspeople have learned of George’s predicament. They show up en masse, and they bring money. They are bailing out the B&L.
Annie pitches in.
The family is joyful again.
Harry arrives. He has commandeered a plane and flown to Bedford Falls to be with his brother.
Under the Christmas tree are presents. One is a copy of “Tom Sawyer,” a book that Clarence showed to George. Clarence was real.
Zuzu reminds us that when you hear a bell ring, that means an angel has gotten his wings.
Forget about Tiny Tim. God bless us, everyone.
Before I ever saw this movie I was familiar with the plot. In those days before my family had television, there was radio. And there was this program that featured audio enactments of movies, and when I saw the movie I recognized pieces of the plot. Some things were different.
In the radio program we hear George recount how he is alone in the darkened town, in the cold and the snow. He comes upon a friendly dog. When he reaches to pet the dog, the dog bites him.
Of course the part about seeing how the world would be is central to the plot, and that was the part most familiar from the radio program. The movie is based on The Greatest Gift, a 1943 short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. Of course, the revision carries the time frame forward to after the war to get Harry’s heroics in.
I most recall the part about the deadly prescription. That haunted me long after I listened to the program.
Of course there is stuff in this movie that does not ring true. For one, the plot ignores what we now call the “butterfly effect.” The universe is a complex system that responds non-linearly to the smallest input. The absence of a single character in the town would have produced a highly-divergent line of development. What the movie shows is rigid universe with one component unplugged.
The case that struck me most watching the movie is George’s wife Mary. Without George, she never marries, and grows old alone. This is absurd beyond all reason. She is Donna freaking Reed. A babe of this caliber would have been snapped up by any of several hundred eager suiters. Actually, in Stern’s book, George finds that Mary has married another man.
Donna Reed went on to further greatness. She won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Honolulu prostitute in From Here to Eternity. Her TV show The Donna Reed Show ran from 1958 to 1966.
Stewart’s career soared in the 1950s, where he appeared in a number of Alfred Hitchcock movies.