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Monday, December 8, 2014

It was a movie that was ridiculed before it was even made and a film that acting veteran Jimmy Stewart never wanted to make. But when it was all said and done, It’s A Wonderful Life claims a spot as one of the very best movies ever made and a movie that will remain a holiday classic for many generations to come. It is a film that still packs people into movie theaters and commands huge audiences on television. Why? Because there is no more complete Christmas story than It’s A Wonderful Life.

If you have not seen It’s A Wonderful Life at least once, then I have to assume that you are just not a movie person. After nearly 70 years in circulation, this movie has been around the world thousands of times and has been beamed into millions of homes in hundreds of countries. It is the kind of movie that will make a child smile and the toughest biker cry. Why? Because there is no more complete Christmas story than It’s A Wonderful Life.

When Frank Capra announced he was making a movie about a short story he had read, instantly the movie was placed under the not so flattering category of “Capra Corn.” Frank Capra had developed a reputation for making epic, sappy movies that women loved and men could do without. But after a while, even the women started mocking Capra’s films and most people wondered why any studio would green light another piece of Capra Corn.

Jimmy Stewart just got back from the war and was 38 years old when Frank Capra came knocking with the role of George Bailey. When Capra explained the role, Stewart refused because he could not see himself playing a guy that started out as a 16-year-old kid and then grew to be a little over 30. Stewart was tired of those kinds of predictable roles and wasn’t even sure if he wanted to act after the war was over. Even if Stewart did want to act, he certainly didn’t want this type of a role.

Capra kept working on Stewart and, eventually, Stewart agreed. The scene where George Bailey and Mary Hatch were on the phone together with Sam Wainwright, which is also the scene where George and Mary fall in love, was unrehearsed and what you see in the movie was supposed to be a rehearsal. When Jimmy Stewart saw the final results, he was instantly hooked on playing George Bailey and he had the utmost trust in Frank Capra. By the time the movie was done, Jimmy Stewart would say that It’s A Wonderful Life was his favorite project and George Bailey was the character he enjoyed playing the most.

There are a lot of little fun facts about It’s A Wonderful Life that make the movie more interesting. All of the snow scenes were filmed in 80 to 90 degree weather and the actors were suffocating under all of those winter clothes. When Uncle Billy fell into what sounds like trash cans as he was leaving the Bailey house, that was actually a pile of props mistakenly left in place by a stage hand. When actor Thomas Mitchell fell over the props, he improvised the line and Capra kept it in the movie. Instead of firing the stage hand, Capra gave the stage hand a $100 bonus for enhancing the movie.

But the media was relentless on Capra and, as a result, It’s A Wonderful Life bombed on its initial release. It cost nearly $4 million to make It’s A Wonderful Life, which was an unheard of amount of money for 1946, especially with the war just ending. The movie never made its initial investment back in its first or second run, but it has gone on to sell millions of dollars in movie theater tickets and generate millions of dollars in revenue on television.

The movie is honest and yet it keeps its distance. We never get too hung up on one character, even though the movie focuses on George Bailey. We understand that even Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver (no relation to Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie) play important roles in the story and when the two of them turn on George Bailey when George gets to see what life would be like without him, we feel George’s confusion and anxiety along with him.

Yes, this is a Christmas movie and one of the best ever made. But it is also just a good movie that anyone can enjoy. The movie tugs at your heartstrings in an effortless way that seems to leave you motionless by the end.

To my big brother George, the richest guy in town. Yeah, that one gets me every time.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5

George N Root III is a drive-in movie fanatic and finds solace in these winter months watching Christmas movies. Check out his reviews every week and see how your favorite Christmas movie ranks.

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