Friday, December 21, 2012

The Best Christmas Movie

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

This movie is perfect. Every year I sob all the way through it. sunbunny, another writer on Billie's site, and I have been exchanging emails recently and she told me she expected to see that quote in my review. I’m happy to do so, not only because I like to do what my friends ask me to do, but also because she’s right. This movie is perfect. It’s not only my favorite Christmas movie, it’s one of my three favorite movies of all time.

sunbunny and I are not alone. Released in 1946, it’s initial reception was cool at best and it lost money for the studio. Since then, however, it has become arguably the best known Christmas film. It currently stands at 20th in the AFI’s list of Best Movies of all Time; but, even better, it is number one on AFI’s list of Most Inspiring Films of All Time.

So, what is it about this movie that speaks so profoundly to so many people? I think it is because all of us can see ourselves, or at least part of ourselves, in George Bailey, played to perfection by Jimmy Stewart. The quintessential flawed everyman, George feels that his life has no meaning and that nothing he has ever done is worthwhile. He has led a quiet life, marrying his high school sweetheart, running his father’s business and being a part of a small town. Unfortunately, however, many of the choices George has made throughout his life were caused by circumstances beyond his control and he feels his life has been a failure.

George’s life unfolds in front of us at a pace seldom seen today. Long scene after long scene play out, filled with some of the most wonderful characters ever seen on screen. Mr. Potter, the ultimate Scrooge; Mr. Gower the pharmacist who buys George the suitcase he never gets to use; Uncle Billy, the forgetful drunk who is the cause of the ultimate misery; Sam Wainwright, the successful best friend; Violet, the town tart; not to mention Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver. The highlight, however, is the romance between George and Mary. One of my favorite couples of all time, we see them together from the time they are children. The scene where they are talking on the phone leaning into each other just makes me melt. Now, that is romance! But, as we watch these scenes, we also watch George become more and more frustrated and unhappy.

Just when George reaches his lowest point, down comes Clarence from heaven to help him. One of the reasons that Clarence works so well is that he, too, is flawed. Trying for over 200 years to achieve his wings, he is the bumbler, the failure in heaven -- only an angel second class. I think many of us believe that if our guardian angel were to appear to us, he or she would more likely resemble Clarence than that frothy confection sitting on top of our Christmas tree.

Clarence and George are only on screen together for the final half hour of this movie, but what a half hour it is. Clarence shows George what the world would like if he had never been born and it is not a pretty sight. Without exception, all the characters we have come to know and love are worse off without George. Arguably, all of this is taken to an extreme, but the point is made. George realizes that he has, indeed, had a wonderful life and the final scene always leaves me sobbing.

There are several instances that date this movie. An adult slapping a child? Signs advertising cigarettes? A house worth $5,000? Unmarried Mary is the spinster librarian? The Italian family is stereotypical to the point of embarrassment. Many of the outdoor scenes were obviously filmed indoors. The dialogue can be stilted and the language can be hilariously old fashioned. It devolves into slapstick several times, the most notable being the swimming pool incident. But, all of these little quibbles just add to its charm.

One little tidbit that I just have to share because it emphasizes the theme of this movie. In the scene right after Harry comes home from college, Uncle Billy is drunk and stumbling home. All of a sudden, there is a loud crash and, off screen, we hear Uncle Billy slurring that he is all right while Jimmy Stewart starts to laugh. During the filming of this scene, equipment fell off screen and Thomas Mitchell ad-libbed the line. Capra liked the take so much, he kept it in. You never know where life is going to take you.

This movie speaks to me in a way few things ever have and I have watched it dozens of times. It is so very easy to fall into George’s trap; life can be hard and lonely. But what this movie does perfectly is remind us that we are never alone because as Clarence writes, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” So, to all my friends who are reading this, have a joyous holiday season and may 2013 bring you a wonderful life.

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