It’s the middle of summer, so what better time to take a look at a holiday classic as I dive into the Family genre of the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book. Holiday film or not this one is undeniably a classic, and James Stewart is simply perfection as George Bailey, a man who has a crucial crisis and is aided by an angel, second class, Clarence (Henry Travers).
Filled with innocence, joy, and real depth of emotion, this tale marries fantasy with drama, as George who wonders about the impact he’s had on his those around him, as his compassionate but increasingly frustrating existence begins to wear on him.
The town of Bedford Falls is lucky to have him, as he gives of himself endlessly, and he constantly buts heads with the devious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who plans to take over the town, and only George stands in his way.
Gone are his dreams of travel and excitement as he stays in town, helping and working, always hoping for more, but unable to get away from the town because of his commitment to the town and its people. His own hopes and aspirations are constantly put on hold as life goes on around him, not realizing how essential he is to all of it.
Through Clarence’s help, who is motivated by his desire to get his wings, he sees what the town and life would have been like without him. The first three quarters of the film aren’t even set at Christmas, it’s only the last quarter of the film that earns it holiday stripes, as everything comes to a head on Christmas Eve.
This is still a beautiful film, with gorgeous, endearing characters that have stood the test of time, and has been spoken of countless times, analyzed, commended and screened and still maintains its charm, and emotion.
Stewart is a wonderful presence, and Donna Reed as Mary, who plays his wife, is simply luminous. There is an innocence and sense of real love in their relationship, and sure, it’s an idealized one that can romanticize having a honeymoon in a worn down, rain-soaked house, but isn’t that the point of romance? An idealized reality shared with someone you care about? Mary tries to show him how important he is to her, and by extension the town, but it’s not until he has the encounter with Clarence that things are truly revealed to him.
The fact that it takes its time, to build its story, to invest in the characters is what makes the film resonate. There’s no fast-food rush to it, it lets you marinate with the characters, and the world they live in before everything is up-ended, making it that much more dramatic, and allowing it more of an impact.
It remains an important film, with an equally important message, one that we should probably be reminded of more than once a year.
A joyous exercise in humanity, hope, and the way our lives intertwine and effect others.