IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Frank Capra, 1946)

It’s grandiose. It sets its inflated style with its opening voice-overed starry heaven, and continues this style during its (interminable) duration on earth. By contrast, Lothar Mendes’s one decade-earlier The Man Who Could Work Miracles, from Wells, begins the same way but becomes precise, life-sized, once the action comes down to our planet. The Mendes film is also a lot funnier.
     Capra’s theme—how an ordinary man’s life matters, because it touches so many other lives—is sound; but here it doubly disintegrates. One, Capra’s grandiose style cannot accommodate the small spectacle of an ordinary man. Two, his Everyman, George Bailey, is given a history that matches the grandiosity of the style! As a kid, Bailey not only saved his brother’s life at risk to his own but saved his employer, a dipsomaniacal pharmacist, from prison! The film proceeds along these inflated lines. Bailey’s life may be wonderful, but it’s hardly ordinary.
     James Stewart’s performance as George is a dazzling tour-de-force, and Thpmas Mitchell is brilliant as his nervous, forgetful uncle. But too many of the other performances are way over the top. Henry Travers barely registers as Clarence, the budding angel. Cute: that’s all Travers does here. Donna Reed, as usual, is insufferable.
     Not one of the children is the least bit engaging, let alone memorable.
     Capra films have been noisy before; but this one splits the eardrums—and for no other purpose than to pursue its “big” aims. Capra is thinking, I suppose, the louder, the better.
     All the cribbing from A Christmas Carol made me wish I were watching Brian Desmond Hurst’s Scrooge (1951) instead. I don’t give a dickens for It’s a Wonderful Life. If you say you do, I won’t believe you—any more than I can believe that anyone could be so misguided as to think that The Godfather (1972) is a good movie.


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