A few months (yes, months–I am a slacker, just like George McFly) ago, I pondered the question of which films I would most like to take with me to a fictional desert island. I composed a long post sort of contemplating this question without ever reaching any conclusion.
The recent holiday season, however, reminded me of one film I would definitely want to take to that desert island. Even though I have seen this film so many times that I can recite each line of dialogue and anticipate every inflection of James Stewart’s voice, its story is just as compelling, revelatory, and poignant as its first viewing: It’s A Wonderful Life.
There is not a single mis-step in this film: every actor is perfectly cast, every line of dialogue is essential and perfectly delivered, and at no point does the film lag or lose its focus. It is a perfect film. That is not a statement of hyperbole; that is the truth. And even though in some ways, It’s A Wonderful Life is a product of its time, it remains, at the same time, essentially timeless.
A favorite scene? Impossible. Young George, his sore ear bloodied, cowering from Mr. Gower, who then embraces him for what he has done for him. George and Mary hovering near the edge of the swimming pool in the midst of a Charleston Dance Contest. “They’re cheering us, we must be good!” George and Mary, faces pressed together, on the telephone. “I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone!” Mr. Potter extends a tempting offer — George asks to have time to think it over with his wife — he reaches to shake Mr. Potter’s hand and realizes he doesn’t need 24 hours, he doesn’t need to talk to anybody, the answer is no, doggone it because Mr. Potter is nothing but a scurvy little spider. George, having seen how his absence affects the lives of those he loves, prays on the bridge where moments earlier he had contemplated suicide, “I wanna live again. I wanna live again. Please, God, let me live again.” Snow falls and…Zuzu’s petals! The final scene — George, overwhelmed and overjoyed at the love and support of his family and friends. “Look, Daddy, Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” “That’s right, that’s right. Attaboy Clarence!”
A favorite line of dialogue? Equally impossible. “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die.” “Oh, why don’t you stop annoying people?” “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!” “I wish I had a million dollars…Hot dog!” “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding!” “And that goes for you, too!” “…and then I’m comin’ back to college and see what they know.” “Excuse you for what?” “You were born older, George.” “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”
A favorite character? Ah, now that’s easy. There’s really only one choice, isn’t there? George Bailey, so proud of his membership in the National Geographic Society, was so sure he knew what he was gonna do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that — exploring and building things — but instead he ends up staying in Bedford Falls selflessly taking over his father’s job he found so stifling, ultimately feeling like a failure who wished he’d never been born — a wish whose devastation can only be revealed to George by an angel without wings. How fitting then that the film was not a critical or commercial success upon its release — like George and his father before him — and through the years has rightly been elevated to the status of classic.
It is often difficult to separate an actor and the character he plays, and it is never so hard as with Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. He creates a character so real that the instant he speaks a line, you believe him. You believe George Bailey is a real person, not a character in movie, and Stewart does it so effortlessly that it’s hard to believe that he’s acting. Without George Bailey, the people around him and the town of Bedford Falls falls apart and without Jimmy Stewart, It’s A Wonderful Life, too, would fall apart.
It’s A Wonderful Life is quite possibly the most effective and affective film. You identify with George Bailey, you care about him and root for him as if you really know him, and at the end of the film, you’re so glad that he has recognized how wonderful he is that you are even able to forget that nasty old Mr. Potter is left unpunished.
It’s the perfect film to watch at Christmas. It’s the perfect film to watch in July. It’s the perfect film to watch on a desert island. It’s the perfect film.
Happy New Year to you…in jail!