Few movies, holiday or otherwise, are as iconic as 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and I’m not going in for hyperbole here. We see this thing everywhere. It’s parodied, excerpted, tributed, shown in the background in various languages (looking at you, Home Alone 2) and we know it like green bean casserole or Mom’s sugar cookies. It’s probably quicker to list who hasn’t seen the movie, if those people even exist.
Naturally, there are those of us who like the film, while others are indifferent, and still others can’t stand it. I happen to like it, but I have it memorized so I try not to watch it every year, and yes, I do have some favorite moments. Behold, the short list (in no particular order, of course):
Splash, fools, splash.
No matter anyone’s thoughts on the film, it has to be admitted that the Charleston contest scene is pretty awesome. It, of course, culminates in a world-class prank by the actor formerly known as Alfalfa (Carl Switzer), and is played with such humor by non-dancers Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. And I like that even the principal takes the plunge into the pool along with all those wacky high school grads.
What’s really fun is that the pool still exists today in Beverly Hills. Nicknamed “The Swim Gym,” it’s a beloved landmark and recently restored.
George and Mary’s walk home.
George and Mary are so danged cute without being overly sweet, and I like their playful banter–anyone who’s ever walked home (or anywhere) with a crush can attest as to how romantic it can be. Although most of us don’t end up talking to our dates from either side of a gigantic hydrangea bush.
Another thing I appreciate about the scene is that it ends with George finding out about his father having a stroke. Obviously, this isn’t a happy development, but story-wise it’s an effective step in George’s character arc because it illustrates how life can change in an instant.
Uncle Billy’s drunken crash.
George sends an inebriated Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) off home singing “My Wild Irish Rose,” and as soon as he’s out of frame we hear a long, glorious clap of unseen metal and glass. Billy’s disembodied voice slurs out, “I’m all right! I’m all right!” while George looks to his left in a mixture of confusion and amusement.
What’s amazing about the scene is its inadvertentcy. A crew member off camera dropped some equipment, and instead of breaking character, the two masters who were Jimmy Stewart and Thomas Mitchell went with it, creating what may be one of the best in-the-moment reactions in all of film history. That Capra chose to leave it in the picture was genius.
Mary and George on the phone.
Very simple and very effective. George tells himself he just wants out of Bedford Falls, he’s not enthused about marriage because he thinks it will tie him down, and he’s mad because Harry’s new marriage thwarts his plans. It’s amazing what a phone call will do.
It’s very much of its time, too, like the boom box scene in Say Anything. If, heaven forbid, Wonderful Life was ever remade for the present day, this scene would probably lose all its romantic tension because no one has to get this close on a Skype call.
The Bailey Building and Loan saves the day.
During a bank run, scared customers descend on the Bailey Building and Loan to withdraw their money, while Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) dangles funds in front of these poor, desperate people and threatens to poach the Building and Loan’s shareholders. Things are just about to get even more chaotic when Mary offers the money she and George were going to honeymoon on.
This is one of those “YASSS” moments because not only does it show the characters putting their fellow man ahead of themselves, but it’s always fun to stick it to a guy like Potter.
I like Zuzu’s (Karolyn Grimes) scene with George because it shows what a good dad George is, even when he’s worried sick. The Bailey house has a nice balance between establishing boundaries for children while encouraging their imaginations, and Zuzu clearly trusts George. The scene also sets up the all-important arc of George wishing he had never been born and then, to his horror, noticing that his link to his daughter has been severed.
This scene is one of Karolyn Grimes’s favorites, too. She loved being with James Stewart and was contented just watching him, so much so that she didn’t pay attention to her delivery.
Everything George and Clarence.
Okay, so this is more like a good twenty minutes as opposed to a moment, technically, but I really like the interplay between George and Clarence (Henry Travers). At first George doesn’t take Clarence seriously because the idea of Clarence being an angel is so far-fetched.
However, George transitions from levity to horror when he realizes he’s gotten what he wished for. He goes from kidding Clarence to depending on him and then pleading with him to put his life back. Clarence is nothing but patient and kind to George because he knows what George has been through and he’s not just out to get his wings: He honestly wants to help George see how good he really has it.
This may be the darkest part of the movie, but the character development is superb and it’s a great bit of acting by Stewart and Travers. In particular it shows a new depth of Jimmy Stewart’s acting abilities, and this would have been novel to 1940s audiences who were used to seeing Stewart play strong, steady and folksy.
The question everyone asks is, “What keeps people coming back to It’s A Wonderful Life?”
I agree with what Karolyn Grimes said:
I think a lot of people turn to this film to give them hope and it’s a film that touches peoples’ lives. It’s very positive, but there is a sense of negativity in the film, too. But everybody survives it and I think that’s a reminder of today’s times that if we have hope and if we try to make a difference, if we give of ourselves, I think it can all turn around.
For more of the It’s A Wonderful Life Blogathon, please see the Classic Movie Muse. Thanks for hosting, this–it was fun. As always, thanks for reading, all, and see you on Thursday for Gill and Gabriela’s Bond Not Bond Blogathon…
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