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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: It’s a Wonderful Life



It’s a Wonderful Life (Also Blu-ray) (2 Disc Collector‘s Set) Four Stars

U.S.; Frank Capra, 1946 (Paramount)

 It’s a Wonderful Life is Frank Capra’s Yuletide masterpiece about George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a small-town guy on the edge of self-destruction, who is shown by a  pixilated guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) what would have happened if he’d never lived, what a difference his life really made and why it is truly (sometimes) more blessed to give than to receive.

It’s one of those movies that almost all moviegoers know, many love and a few (the unhappy few) pooh-pooh. But Capra‘s populist gem deserves its primal place in our Christmas memories. It‘s a  stirring,  exhilarating mix of Norman Rockwell and film noir, of angelic fantasy and small town comedy, of heart-rending drama and sharp political fable — the wonderful tale of a man who sacrifices himself all his life to help his family and neighbors, and then finds himself on the brink of suicide when disaster strikes and his bread seems to sink into the waters. Embodying that man, small town savings and loan owner and cock-eyed idealist George Bailey, is the finest performance of one of America’s all-time premier movie actors: the great James Stewart as George Bailey, who, one Christmas Eve, plunges into Hell and then comes back.

In many ways, It’s a Wonderful Life is Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol done in reverse. Here, on a magical Chistmas Eve, a good man is made to understand the meaning of his life, and the consequences of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge is made to understand the consequences of selfishness. (Scrooge was, probably not coincidentally, a regular Christmas season radio role for Lionel Barrymore, who plays George’s main nemesis, Wonderful Life‘s banker-villain Old Man Potter). Dickens knew his audience, and so did Capra — maybe not right away but eventually, in the long view of movie and pop culture history. It’s a Wonderful Life, at first a box-office disppointment, eventually ascended to the heights it deserved.

Capra had a raft of wonderful writers working on his movie’s witty, setimental script : Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (who wrote the urbane “Thin Man” mystery comedies) among the credited and Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker among the scribes who, according to some, remained anonymous. (The script source was a Christmas card story by Philip Van Doren Stern.) These writers were mostly left-wingers except for Republican Myles Connolly (and Capra himself) and they all helped fashion a wondrous tribute to America and its “small-d” democratic values, a paean to good citizenship and honest-to-God family values that has never been surpassed or matched.

The movie also boasts another great, wonderful,  Capra acting ensemble, probably his greatest. You couldn’t find anywhere, anyway, anyhow, any better actors for the parts Goodrich, Hackett and the others wrote, than the talents assembled here: Donna Reed as George’s truly good and beautiful wife Mary, Lionel Barrymore as evil banker Potter (a staunch right-winger in real life joyously trashing some of his fellow Republicans),  Beulah Bondi (Hollywood’s champion Golden Age mother) as George’s mom, Ma Bailey, Gloria Grahame as the town vamp Violet, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as the nearly inseparable cop and cabbie team of Bert and Ernie, Thomas Mitchell as half-mad, kindly Uncle Billy, H. B. Warner as the near- tragic drunken pharmacist Mr. Gower, Frank Albertson as George’s rival (for Mary), Sheldon Leonard as Nick, the tough bartender who “passes out wings.” and Henry Travers as Clarence, the whimsical angel who wins them.

Most of all, “Life” has Frank Capra, the Italian-American  directorial magician from Palermo, Sicily (which he left at 6), who could mix and match comedy and drama with intoxicating expertise, and who could move audiences and make them laugh (and cry) like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra thought this was his best movie, even though the original 1946 reviews from audiences and critics were mixed, and the film’s receipts failed to support the new company, Liberty Films, Capra was trying to set up with his friends and colleagues George Stevens and William Wyler. (The Best Years of Our Lives, Wyler’s more serious take on many of the same themes in Capra’s movie, was released that same year, and became the box-office smash that Wonderful Life should have been but wasn’t.)

Yet Capra was right. It was his best movie. Every Christmas, it always makes me laugh, always  makes me cry. I love it madly. Hey, if you’ve never been moved, even slightly, when George’s younger WW2 hero vet sibling Harry (Todd Karns) toasts his big brother, as “the richest man in town” and George hears the bell and says “Atta boy, Clarence” and everybody breaks into “Auld Lang Syne” — well, as Jimmy Stewart would say, the…the…the…heck with you.

And by the way, Merry Christmas.

Extras: “Making of”  documentary; Frank Capra Jr. tribute; Trailer.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon