My sincerest apologies again to readers: I am extremely delayed with this review (as readers will note, this Monday review is going up on a Thursday—d’oh!). Like a good little port, I re-watched 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life two or three weeks ago, when Audre, Ponty, and I agreed to review it and the 1951 Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol earlier in December. I was writing and editing like the wind to get most everything done before departing for a pre-Christmas trip to Arizona (more on that in a separate post), but didn’t quite manage to get it all done.
As I’ll detail in another post, I spent the first quarter of Christmas Day driving from western Kentucky down through Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Augusta, before finally reaching my parents’ home in western South Carolina. I’d managed to get posts done through Christmas, thanks to a delayed connecting flight in Minneapolis, but was unable to get much more writing done beyond that. Christmas Eve saw me convoying to Kentucky from my older brother’s home in Indianapolis; I spent a frosty Christmas Eve with his in-laws on their farm, before setting out early Christmas morn along the route delineated above.
That’s all to say that, despite my chubbiest efforts, I was not able to get everything done. Facing the prospect of writing this review late on Christmas night, I put it off, hoping I’d knock it out Monday evening—to no avail.
But I digress—enough excuses. What about the film?
Like Audre, Ponty, and many of the kind readers and commenters these past few days, I have a personal connection with this film, one that conjures up warm memories of past Christmases, and especially my late paternal grandfather, who was very much a product of the era that produced this film—the Greatest Generation.
The first time I saw it (and, if I am honest, the last time I watched it in its entirety) I was probably around six- or seven-years old. It was Christmas night at my paternal grandparents’ home sometime in the early 1990s. My grandfather and several of my cousins and I started watching the film, which—unbeknownst to L’il Portly—is quite long.
My parents—always conscious about conserving gas and cutting down on unnecessary trips—improbably (to my young mind) allowed me to stay to finish the film while they took my two brothers home. At the time we lived way on the other side of town, out in the country, and the drive was not a short one. My parents must have known how much I was enjoying the film and the time with my Papa, and let me stay. I was on the floor on my belly watching with rapt attention, and loved every minute of it, although I’d forgotten large chunks of the movie over the span of three decades.
One last personal note before getting into the meat of the review: I vividly remember my parents making me take a bath that night. I was exhausted—it was quite late by the time I got home, and I was and am one of those people who gets very grumpy if he doesn’t get to bed early enough, or doesn’t get enough sleep—but Mom insisted I get a bath before bed. They may have made an exception by letting me stay to finish the film, but Mom was and is a firm believer in a good bath before bedtime.
As for the film, I was struck by how much I had forgotten. I remembered the parts with Clarence, the wingless angel, but that really only makes up the last twenty or thirty minutes of the film. Most of the flick is George Bailey giving inspirational speeches in his endearing stammer about keeping the Building & Loan open, and seeing his dreams of world travel crushed again and again.
It makes sense that the angel parts stuck out to me as a child. The rest of the film resonates with me much more as a man nearing middle age, as I could relate with George’s frustrations, as well as his moments of joy and triumph.
Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey is iconic and arresting. When his goofy uncle loses $8000 to the wicked Henry Potter, the local robber baron intent on owning everything in Bedford Falls, George faces imprisonment for mismanagement and embezzlement of bank funds. He suffers a total meltdown—all of the efforts of his life, which saw him barely scraping by over years and years of hard work, are undone in an instance of carelessness on behalf of a doddering family member who, the film makes clear, is pretty much coasting along on George’s generosity and kindness.
That meltdown is powerful—we see a good man, a man constantly waylaid by forces and events beyond his control, but always bearing up and making the best of his situation, finally break down. He lashes out at his children and his wife; he chews out his children’s teacher; he gets in a fistfight with the teacher’s husband at a bar; he wrecks his car; and, finally, he is literally at the brink—looking over the bridge into the icy river, contemplating suicide.
That sequence was the hardest to watch, because it’s so relatable and real. Here is a man who sacrificed his dreams and ambitions for everyone and everything in his little town, only to find that his efforts are not enough.
Or so it seems! As Clarence demonstrates to George, his sacrifices and his (admittedly overly generous) business practices have prevented Bedford Falls from devolving into a wretched hive of scum and villainy under the grasping Potter. Instead, it’s become a supportive and loving community, and everyone that George helped comes through in the end to save George from prison and his building and loan from closure.
The mark of a good work of art, be it literature or film, is that we can appreciate its depths and nuances in different ways and to different degrees upon revisiting it in different phases of our lives. I loved the film as a small child; I love it even more as an adult. It still appeals to my child-like sense of the magic and wonder of Christmas, but also stirs other parts of me, reminding me that, no matter how hard it gets, God is in Control, and we leave an indelible stamp upon everyone we meet.
This Christmas and beyond, let’s strive to be George Baileys, not Henry Potters.
2 thoughts on “Delayed Monday Morning Movie Review: A Very Portly Christmas: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)”
Like all things of worth, the movie grows as we grow. The Bible that we read as kids is not the same Bible that we read now in our maturity. The Bible is, of course, the exact same, it is we who have changed and grown.
The truth – like the truths in the Bible and the truths in the movie – will always come into clear focus. The truth has a way of doing that.
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Superb review, Port. Just about to share it on TCW.
I find it interesting though unsurprising that all 3 of us focused on the same scene – that of George’s breakdown. It’s a very powerful scene, even now, probably more so now. And it reminds people that Stewart could pull off a performance when he needed to.
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