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Review: It's a Wonderful Life still wonderful

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | DECEMBER 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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Why review a movie that’s been around for almost 70 years, one that’s been an American staple of holiday tradition, that’s already been analyzed and critiqued and praised to all worthwhile ends? I’m not sure.

To get in the spirit of the season, I suppose. Plus, including this Saturday, it’s being screened locally at FilmScene, 118 E. College St., a couple times. 

The last time I’d seen It’s a Wonderful Life — just a clip, really — was in an Introduction to Economics class when the professor used one of its scenes to explain what a bank run is. Thankfully, years of maturing while also watching other, fluffier Christmas films allows me to finally acknowledge it for the great movie … er … Christmas movie … it really is. 

Based on the Phillip Van Doren Stern short story “The Greatest Gift,” Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is set on Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls, N.Y., though the bulk of row film, more than the first half, is actually a long — very long — exposition about George Bailey’s (James Stewart) pretty fulfilling yet seemingly empty and stressful life that leads up to where the short story actually begins. It’s a smart way to craft a dynamic and complex character whom you actually care about/feel for, and I imagine it gave movie critics nightmares trying to review the film without spoiling anything, which is probably part of why it was initially so poorly reviewed. For the sake of the four people who haven’t seen it yet, I’ll do my best. 

The exposition is actually a pretty good movie by itself. It’s fraught with ups and downs, and to adopt a perspective I’m too young to actually claim, it makes me wonder what happened to movies. What happened to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when directors and writers had to compensate for less-than-optimal technology with good storytelling? 

Why, in the first 12 minutes alone, we hear angels discuss that George is “thinking seriously about throwing away God’s greatest gift.” We see a child almost drown in freezing water, his brother losing his hearing in one ear saving him. We witness a druggist-turned-depressed-alcoholic at the news of his son’s death almost poison a child with the wrong prescription (from a bottle marked “Poison”) and then beat kid George for not delivering said poison on time.

Merry Christmas, boys and girls.

The movie does have some heartwarming moments (to keep everyone in the theater from jumping off a bridge after leaving, I’m assuming), as well as moments of humor and social and economic commentary that still apply today. It’s also quotable up the wazoo (“You want the Moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”), which explains why I felt as if I’d seen it 20 times before. The grit and honesty of the storytelling makes for a realistic (with the exception of the whole guardian angel thing … whoops … spoiler?), often uncomfortable experience not found in most holiday films. 

Other fun facts: Despite the adoration it receives today, it initially did miserably at the box office, and because of the film’s commentary on the rich, many (including the FBI) cried communism. Some things really never do change. Oh, and there’s a spinoff out, based on one of the film’s major characters, released in 1990. The Internet says it’s really bad. There’s also a direct sequel slotted for 2015. 

By the film’s end, the moral of the story, folks, is made clear: Be the absolute best citizen and neighbor anyone could possibly be — almost to a fault, really — for the entirety of your life so that everyone in town will give you tons of money in your most critical moment of need … on Christmas Eve. I’m kidding, and ostensibly, that is a spoiler. But don’t fret. You’ve seen it countless times before. It’s the Grinch having a change of heart or everyone suddenly caring about Charlie Brown. The real meat, the real film, comes in the first 118 or so minutes. The last few are a reminder of the season if you haven’t checked a calendar in 11 months.


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