Sunday, December 6, 2015

Christmas Essentials: It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Director: Frank Capra

George Bailey- Jimmy Stewart
Mary Bailey- Donna Reed
Henry Bailey- Todd Karns
Ma Bailey- Beulah Bondi
Mr. Potter- Lionel Barrymore
Uncle Billy- Thomas Mitchell
Clarence- Henry Travers
Violet- Gloria Grahame
Mr. Gower- H.B. Warner
Sam Wainwright- Frank Albertson

Notable Awards and Nominations:
Golden Globe- Best Director- Frank Capra

nomination- OSCAR- Best Picture
nomination- OSCAR- Best Actor- James Stewart
nomination- OSCAR- Best Sound
nomination- OSCAR- Best Film Editing
nomination- OSCAR- Best Director- Frank Capra


Opening Remarks
Almost everyone has seen this movie or some parody of it, so I probably don't need my trademark SPOILER ALERT... but I'll put it here anyway just in case..
But also, I'll SPOIL the fact that this movie is a guaranteed tear-jerker... and this is the one of those occasions where people can honestly say "If you feel nothing watching this movie through to the end, you have no soul"

This is my mom's favorite Christmas movie and it's been a fixture in our family since I was a teenager. When my dad's Taiwanese friend (who used to be a translator for one of his distributors in Asia) Joevy spent a Christmas season with us, she was seeing the movie with us for the first time. Along with my mom and I, she enjoyed a Grasshopper (those who don't know- it's a cocktail with white crème de cacao, green crème de minte and milk/cream) and needed a tissue afterwards.

But before seeing the actual movie, I've seen versions of it play out in cartoons. There was an episode of Rugrats where Chuckie blames himself for his dad's CD going missing and an guardian angel shows him "what the world will be like without you" when he tries to run away. It's pretty disturbing just how exaggerated it was- that without Chuckie, Angelica would be a tyrant that makes everyone's lives revolve around her. At the end of it, Angelica was the one who had taken the CD and her dad forces her to apologize.
I think "Tiny Toons" also did a version where Buster Bunny almost jumps off the page of the animated cel he was on.
They did it once on "Glee"... kinda depressing, really... but it also felt like a cop-out. They do this whole "what would McKinley High be like without him" scenario to convince Artie that everyone is better off because he's wheel-chair bound. That if he wasn't, he'd be one of the jocks, nobody would have stuck it out with the Glee club. It was like they were saying that the kid in the wheelchair is never allowed to be upset about that.

Then in "Rocko's Modern Life" they made fun of the line "teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings"...
but instead, a kid says "teacher says every time a gas cap is found, an angel gets its wings" and his dad says "your teacher's full of snot!"

Father Clarence, a character that happened randomly on "All My Children" when miracles were needed to resolve storylines, was likely their own version of Clarence the guardian angel. (Him arriving to stop JR from running away with Bianca's daughter Miranda... that was one of the greatest moments in the history of the series- well, in the decade I spent watching it)

They also went into this on "Friends" once... but it was more or less discussing the movie. Phoebe has a rude awakening when she realizes her aunt never showed her the ends of depressing movies. "Old Yeller" among others... I know the ending of that movie, so I refuse to see it EVER. Anyway, Monica suggests that she see "It's a Wonderful Life" and later, she says that she turned it off when George Bailey was at the bridge. She refused to see beyond that... therefore missing the ultimate happy ending.
That always bothered me :/ that she never got see how it all resolved.

The Story

The entire town of Bedford Falls (somewhere in upstate New York) is praying for God to help George Bailey because he seems to be out of sorts. We go up to the heaven and the stars and the superior beings up there get George Bailey's guardian angel Clarence acquainted with him so he'll have the tools he needs to help him.
We the audience see the flashbacks right along with him.

We begin with George at the age of 12 where he saves his brother Harry from drowning and loses hearing in his left ear.
He stops his boss, Mr. Gower, from putting poison in capsules going to a sick kid. He's also someone who has great admiration for his father, who runs the Bailey Bros Building & Loan with his uncle Billy. His father is the one person in Bedford Falls with enough guts to stand up to Mr. Potter, the meanest/richest person in town.

Fast forward a couple years and we see how he falls in love with his wife, Mary Hatch, and how his sense of common decency and his unshakeable moral core have helped hundreds of people... but have also kept him stuck in Bedford Falls- which is practically purgatory in his mind.

On Christmas Eve, all hell breaks loose... at least that's how his mind sees it. Absentminded Uncle Billy misplaces $8000 that he was going to deposit into the bank. George Bailey finds out and loses it because all of the impending consequences- felony, jail time, etc.- that are liable to fall on his shoulders.
He never explains any of this to his family, but they see he is very upset and irate and simply not acting like himself. Several other people he meets along the way see he's not in the best state, so all the praying occurs as a result.

Over an hour later, Clarence finally makes an appearance. He saves George from jumping off a bridge by jumping himself- figuring he'll be too busy saving him to think about suicide. The next thing we know, Clarence grants George's wish- that he no longer exists.
And Bedford Falls suddenly becomes an entirely different place.

First of all, it's called Pottersville- so apparently Mr. Potter's inevitable takeover finally happened. Every other establishment is a dance club or a bar. But the most disturbing fact to him is that nobody knows who he is...
It isn't until he sees what becomes of Mary that he decides that he wants his life back. And if not for one slight omission, it was a perfectly happy ending.

Saturday Night Live

YouTube is great for so much... but it doesn't have the link I want to share.

But the one thing missing from "It's a Wonderful Life" that would have made it awesome... if everyone in Bedford Falls went after Mr. Potter and gave him what was coming to him.

Dana Carvey plays George Bailey in this sketch (his Jimmy Stewart impression is spot-on). The actor playing Uncle Billy suddenly remembers that he accidentally rolled up the $8000 in a newspaper and gave it to Mr. Potter. So everyone at the Bailey house goes to Mr. Potter's mansion, find out that he's not even a cripple and they beat the crap out of him.

If there was one villain that needed his comeuppance, it was Mr. Potter... perhaps more annoying than the fact he's never found out... it's that he is so old yet it seems like he'll be around forever.
He practically gave Mr. Bailey (George and Harry's father) a stroke with all their battles over ideals and such... yet he gets to live a long life... movies just aren't supposed to work like that. In real life, absolutely, but these kinds of ills are always fixed in movies.
Clearly not always, but thank God for SNL at least.

Other Talking Points

For me personally, I don't know why, but what chokes me up is the moment when George's brother Harry arrives at the Bailey house.
In Pottersville, we learn that he died when he was 9 when he broke through the ice. And the reason why he got the Congressional Medal of Honor never came to pass.
What I don't get... George and Harry were with a bunch of kids when they were playing near the thin ice. Why couldn't any of those kids have saved Harry when he fell through the ice? Could none of them swim? Or were they cowards and didn't even try? Or was Harry alone (and all those friends were George's friends?)
But seeing Harry alive and in uniform and such, arriving a day earlier than his original homecoming... that does me in every time.

Of course I have to ask if George Bailey EVER got to leave Bedford falls to visit Europe and have a real honeymoon... it seems like every single opportunity he had to leave, some moral obligation kept him around. Well, that and Mr. Potter. He stayed with the Building & Loan after his father died of a stroke and the board refused to kept the business running without him. How Mr. Potter got on the board is beyond me... other than him buying his way in... but it just is ridiculous how the rest of the board members were too chicken to stand up to him. I mean, he's just a big jerk with a lot of money. It's not like he was connected to the mob or anything...that we know of... if they had anything in his background about him threatening to whack people or do harm to their families, then maybe. The worst he could do was increase the rent at his slums...

The courtship and relationship between George and Mary had a lot of great moments. Although there is one element that always annoyed me- listening to them sing "Buffalo Gals"- being out of key and in terrible harmony... it makes me cringe.
But there was something kinda hilarious about it: the fact that Mary's mother loved Sam Wainwright and wanted her to marry him... and she was upset when she and George got together. So I say "if you love him so much, YOU marry him."
Other than Sam being rich, I really didn't get the "attraction" about him... I found him annoying with the exception of his final act... when he advanced George Bailey's salary via telegram when he got word of his money trouble. That was pretty cool.

I read one article where someone asked why Pottersville was so bad because it had all of these cool risqué establishment and a lot of people seemed happier. But the people who grew to know and love either didn't exist anymore or they were just mean bizarro versions of themselves. The worst was Nick who now owns what used to be Martini's place... he was completely different and difficult to watch. (In the real world, he was not just a good nice guy, but also handsome). Also Ma Bailey, George's mom, she looked old and creepy and very cranky.
Probably the greatest contribution George made to Bedford Falls- with the exception of building Bailey Park affordable housing (not counting Harry, I'm still on the fence about whether George's non-existence would have guaranteed his death at a young age)- what he did for Mr. Gower. If it wasn't for him, a distraught Mr. Gower (who lost his son to influenza) would have mistaken put poison in capsules meant for a sick kid... and he would done jail time and become a pariah.

Mary always said that George was the one person she ever loved or would love, so I understand why she would become an old maid/spinster. But George's reaction to her could be misconstrued really badly... Nostalgia Critic called it sexist and said the following:
"She never married? That's the most important thing to a woman, isn't it? ...and she's learning at the library? what kind of horrible world is this?"
Like that's some huge travesty or something...

One thing I don't quite every other version of the "what the world would be like without you" cliché, the person who doesn't exist is a ghost to everyone else in this alternate bizarro world... yet in this version, George interacts with all the people that don't recognize... I guess this would be a way for the parodies to set themselves apart from this movie, but couldn't the movie have had the same impact if George was a ghost that nobody could see?
Something to think about...

But it is slightly annoying that Clarence explains to George that this is what the world is like without him... yet George never GETS that... to me, he's behaving like a time-traveling who's trying to mess around with the time-space continuum... he's talking to these people and trying to explain to them what they're supposed to be when clearly they aren't going to change. What part of YOU DON'T EXIST is so hard for him to get? Especially since he freaking wished for it.

Although it was serious, last night when we watched the movie, we burst out laughing when one of the Bailey kids was praying "Please God, there's something wrong with Daddy"... yes, we are terrible people :P
The one part that has me bursting laughing every time wasn't meant to be funny either- it's Christmas Eve where George is yelling at Zuzu's teacher, asking why she sent her home "half naked" and later he said "with no clothes on" [she didn't wear her coat because she was protecting a flower she won]... he's upset and he's completely exaggerating stuff, but the writing here is just so funny.

Trivia- courtesy of IMDB
[the link to the full list]

Here are some interesting factoids worth noting:

* Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) convinced James Stewart to do this movie- it was his first acting job after serving in WWII and it was very soon after he returned home
*Lionel Barrymore was wheelchair bound in real life and they incorporated that into his character.
*Bedford Falls (the actual place where the movie was filmed) is located in Balboa Park in Encino, California
*The actor who played Mr. Gower was drunk during the scene where he slapped 12-year old George Bailey- the slaps and the resulting blood was real [scary when you really think about it, I can't care it was the 40's when they filmed it]
*Vincent Price was considered for playing Mr. Potter [that would've been interesting, but they did perfectly fine with the man they have]
*Lionel Barrymore was cast after he played a good Ebenzer Scrooge on a radio dramatization of "A Christmas Carol"
*James Stewart majored in architecture at Princeton- George Bailey said he wanted to learn to build things in college
*The scene where Uncle Billy stumbles down the street and says "I'm all right!"- the sound [which we assume to be garbage cans he fell into] in reality was a stagehand that knocked over that's just hilarious.
*everyone was led to assume that Bert & Ernie (the muppets) were named after the cop and cab-driver in this movie... it was a complete coincidence

Something else that falls in line with one of my talking points earlier- I need to copy/paste it so I don't misprint it:
"Mr. Potter is never caught as the thief who embezzled $8000, which he apparently gets to keep. This was very unusual for a Hollywood film of at the time; the Hays Office--the censor--code required that criminals must always be shown to be either punished or made to repent at the end of every film."
Why did they decide with THIS movie to go against that supposed code?
I still don't understand...

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