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“It’s a Wonderful Life” speaks to our troubled times – calling us to be agents of change and hope

December 15, 2016 1 comment

 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” speaks to our troubled times – calling us to be agents of change and hope 

©by Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” (now available online and in bookstores)

 

For many of us, the ugly, vitriolic tenor of the presidential election combined with the incendiary comments and divisive ideas expressed by president-elect Donald Trump have cast a dark pall on things. That’s why there’s no better time than now to watch that great American chestnut of cinema, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” than this particular holiday season.

Film Streams in Omaha is screening this tragic-comic masterwork directed by Frank Capra beginning Dec. 17 on select days through Christmas. The project was Capra’s response to the horrors of the recently concluded Second World War and the recent Great Depression. What Americans today forget is that while the Allied victory over Germany and Japan was greeted with relief and jubilation, the scars of that conflict and of the harsh realities experienced by those who fought it took a deep psychic toll on the nation. Just as America lost its innocence during the Civil War and World War I, it lost any pretense of an idealized world following WWII. Oh, sure, the nation bt on with the business of work, marriage, family and the creation of the consumer age we’re now hostage to, but Capra knew that Americans were an insecure, wounded people behind all that bluster and bravado. It’s no coincidence that that dark cinema of film noir found its apex of expression in the years immediately following the war.

The message of the 1946 film has never been more relevant now as people reeling from the last few months despair over what policies and executive orders will undo the fabric of a nation that for all its inequities does have programs and measures in place to protect the vulnerable among us.

Many folks upset with the election results and fearful of what might be in store the coming four years. feel hopeless, as if their votes and wishes don’t count, and perhaps even harbor a sense that they just don’t matter in the cold calculus of the new world order.

If you’re familiar with the plot, then you know that protagonist George Bailey played by James Stewart is a small town dreamer forever putting off his personal desire for adventure in service to his family’s proletariat building and loan. The business is the last hold out against ruthless Bedford Falls tycoon Mr. Potter, a banker and real estate magnet whose power grab lust will make him stop at nothing to crush his competition. Where George and his late father before him have worked with clients of all races and ethnicities to get them in or keep them in modest homes they could afford, Potter’s only interest is the bottom-line, and if that means pricing them out, then so be it. He represents the bourgeoisie at its most heartless.

It is the classic conflict between the Everyman and the Privileged Man, between the haves and the have-nots, between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between fascism and pluaralism. All sorts of parallels can be found between Potter and Trump. Both are pompous assess who are unfeeling and unbending in their pursuit of wealth and power and they make no apologies for the corners they cut, the contracts they break, the lies they tell and the damage they do.

George Bailey is a young progressive who would have supported FDR then and would have backed Hilary or Bernie today. The disenchanted majority who feel Trump usurped their presumptive president elect by using fear and hate mongering rhetoric are adrift now, no longer at all certain that the democratic process works the way it was intended. Many have thrown up their hands in frustration and worked themselves into fits of anger, desperation and anxiety in anticipation of the Trump administration. In the movie. George loses his faith in America and humanity when things go from bad to worse and it appears to him that all his work and life have been a waste. The tale, which can best be described as a light romantic comedy fantasy meets gritty film noir fable, has George grow so depressed that he contemplates suicide, uttering the wish that he’d never been born. A surreal heavenly intervention shows him how different the world would have been and how empty the lives of his family and friends would be without him having made his mark.

The populist message with spiritual overtones is a reminder, even a challenge that life is a gift that we are expected to cherish and that our imprint, no matter how small or insignificant we believe it to be, is irreplaceable and unique only to us. In this spirit, “It’s a Wonderful Life” calls each of us to do our part in finding our path and following it to do unto others as we would have them do to us. We may not like or understand the path, especially when it grows hard and we grow weary, but it is in the doing that we fulfill our destiny.

In a recent interview I did with Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne he expressed his immeasurable regard for the professional extras who once populated the Hollywood studio factory system. He marveled at how perfectly cast these variations of character actors were and how fully realized, detailed, curated and directed were the business they did and the wardrobe they wore, whether in the background or foreground of shots. He used the example of “Casablanca” as being the epitome of this. “It’s a Wonderful Life” illustrates the same. By the way, the reason why Payne discussed extras at some length with me is that he used a lot of them, as in several hundred, perhaps even a few thousand, not ever all together in any one shot or scene mind you, in his new movie “Downsizing.” He and Kevin Tent are editing the film right now and presumably getting it ready to show at Cannes in May.

Look for a new post this week about “Downsizing” and why you should start the countdown to its fall release. Here’s a hint: its themes become ever more prescient with each new American blunder and world crisis.

Just as “Downsizing” will reflect back to us where America and the world have come and where it might go, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an ageless morality play in the Shakespearean mold are that reveals universal truths of the human heart and soul in extremis.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has had a profound effect on me the many times I’ve seen it and I have no doubt it will move me again.

http://www.filmstreams.org/film/its-a-wonderful-life/

 

One of the most beloved holiday films of all time, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a good man who’s spent his entire life putting other people before himself. When George falls victim to the antics of a greedy banker, he’s cast into a life-threatening despair — that is, until a guardian angel named Clarence shows George what the world would have been like had he never been born.

Additional Information

Also Shown: December 19, 20, 24 & 25, 2015

December 14 -17, 2012

December 17-18, 22, 24-25, 29, 2011

Directed By
Frank Capra

Starring
James Stewart
Donna Reed
Lionel Barrymore
Thomas Mitchell
Henry Travers
Beulah Bondi
Frank Faylen
Ward Bond
Gloria Grahame

Running Time
130 minutes

MPAA Rating
PG

Distributed By
Paramount Pictures

Country of Origin
USA

Language
In English

Release Year
1946

Year Shown Last
2015

Movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” not just holiday season staple, but work of art for all time

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) ple...

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The first time I saw It’s a Wonderful Life I was overwhelmed by the pathos and beauty and unmitigated emotion of this film classic.  I was just getting serious about film in my late teens and I was watching public television one night when I stumbled upon this picture, one I had never heard of up to then. Being vulnerable to its unexpected charms and powers, I was completely taken by it.  I mean, I was mesmerized and moved so thoroughly by what I experienced that it remains one of the most potent experiences of my life.  I had just started programming a college film series on my campus and I immediately set out to find out all I could about this film and to book a 16 millimeter print of it for next semester’s series.  I screened the picture almost every Christmas for as long as I was involved with the college film series, which ended up being something like eight years.  I was so into film then that my volunteer work for the film program took up more of my time and energy and interest than my studies, and my grades suffered as a result.  I continued with the program even after I graduated, calling myself a consultant.  When I worked in public relations at an art museum I made sure to find a way to screen It’s a Wonderful Life there.  Sometimes I think the picture gets too narrowly categorized as a holiday staple, which it certainly is, but it’s far more than that.  It is a film masterpiece that transcends any particular season or theme or period. Like all masterpieces, it is timeless.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in advance of a revival screening.  If you have somehow managed not to see the film, then by all means do so.

 

Movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” not just holiday season staple, but work of art for all time

© by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Even with Christmas movies a genre all their own anymore, one stands above all the rest for its stand-the-test-of-time story about a desperate man who finds out that though poor in funds he’s rich in friends. That film is It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 drama starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Beulah Bondi, Henry Travers, Ward Bond, Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore.

The Frank Capra chestnut stands as one of the most beloved, chronicled and screened pictures in cinema history. Viewing this certified classic has become a staple of the holiday season for countless folks. It can be found on several television channels from late November through early January. Many movie buffs have a videotape or DVD copy of It’s a Wonderful Life in their home film library.

Seeing a film on TV is one thing. Seeing it on the big screen is another. Unless you saw the picture when it came out 61 years ago chances are you’ve never viewed it in a theater. Beginning in the ‘70s, the movie’s enjoyed a popular second life at revival houses, yet it’s seldom been run in these parts. One of those rare opportunities to catch It’s a Wonderful Life on the silver screen comes Saturday, Dec. 22 at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford has booked a pristine 35 millimeter print for a one night only showing as a benefit for the Dobleman Head and Neck Cancer Institute in Omaha.

As a homage to the film the Joslyn Fountain Court will be transformed into a set piece from the story’s mythical Bedford Falls, complete with a local dance troupe, Jitterbrats, doing the Charleston in vintage costumes. Memorabilia related to the film and to co-star Donna Reed will be on display courtesy of the Donna Reed Film Festival, an annual event in the late actress’s hometown of Denison, Iowa.

The screening is the highlight of an event-filled night, starting at 7 p.m., that will include comments from Crawford and special guest Karolyn Grimes, the former child actress who played the adorable Zuzu in the film.

Grimes was 6 when she made the Liberty Films project and RKO Radio Pictures release. The film came near the beginning of a short-lived career that saw Grimes appear in a handful of classics with Hollywood royalty. Besides It’s a Wonderful Life, she earned credits in: Sister Kenny with Rosalind Russell; Blue Skies with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven; John Ford’s Rio Grande with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara; and Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye. She also worked with icons Cecil B. DeMille, Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard (Unconquered), Fred MacMurray (Pardon My Past), Randolph Scott (Albuquerque) and Glenn Ford (Lust for Gold).

Grimes, who left the business at 12, went on to raise a family and work as a medical technician. She lives in the Seattle, Wash. area and travels the country as an “unofficial ambassador” for the film at screenings, festivals, conventions, et cetera.

Over the years the film’s become the subject of books, DVDs, documentaries, even a board game, as it’s attained pop culture, touchstone status.

All the fuss over it now is ironic. Even though considered a quality A title upon its release and one that enjoyed moderate box office and critical success — capped by Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor — the film was not the phenomenon it is today. But as years went by film historians noted it as a distinctive example of Golden Age Hollywood studio production. Once rediscovered on TV, the movie developed an ardent following that’s grown over time.

Like Casablanca, it took a generation for the true enduring value and popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life to be appreciated. It’s gone from forgotten gem to being named one of the 100 greatest movies of all time in a ranking by the American Film Institute. The film also topped the AFI’s list of the most inspirational pics in history.

Everyman protagonist George Bailey’s wistful dream to escape the confines of his small town for the big city is one that reverberates with many of us. His realization that what’s most important — family and friends — is right before him also resonates. The revelation that the lives of others would be poorer without him only comes with the help of some divine intervention — in the form of Clarence the Angel. What could have been pure hokum in the hands of lesser artists becomes a rich, multi-layered tapestry of deep psychological insights in the hands of director Frank Capra, screenwriter Jo Swerling and star Jimmy Stewart.

This was the first feature made after the Second World War by veterans Capra and Stewart, who were forever changed by their wartime experiences. The movie reflects the dark, cynical themes that began creeping into post-war Hollywood fare. George Bailey and Bedford Falls are microcosms of America from the Roaring 20s through the Depression era and on through the war. It is a journey from light to dark to light again. Hope and faith may be shaken but never fade away.

The film is a reminder that each of us impacts others and that we should be grateful for the chance at life we’ve been given. The gift of life is wonderful.

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