George Bailey (James Stewart) is in trouble. We're not sure why, but a whole lot of people down on earth are praying for him. So, heaven decides to intervene with an angel named Clarence. We spend the first half of the movie with Clarence and the other heavenly figures reviewing the crucial moments in George's life. George rescues his brother from dying in the river, George works at Old Man Gower's drugstore and saves a kid who Old Man Gower would have poisoned otherwise. The night of Harry's graduation from high school when his father died. Crucial moments from his relationship with Mary (Donna Reed), like their wedding night interrupted by a run on the bank.
And finally, the day that all the problems stem from. Harry Bailey has earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his work as a Navy Flier in the Pacific, and he's returning home that day. Also, the bank examiner's in town. On top of these, it's Christmas Eve. Uncle Bailey, through his stupid bumbling (if you watch the movie with me, I always yell at Uncle Billy for how stupid he is right here), loses $8,000 by stuffing it inside the newspaper of the richest and sleaziest man in town, Henry F. Potter. Uncle Billy and George search all over the town for it, but to no avail. The Building and Loan is now short in its accounts, and who does George go crawling to? Potter. Potter laughs in his face and tells him the words that will affect the rest of the story. When George offers his life insurance policy, Potter tells him "You're worth more dead than alive". George goes home, has a nervous breakdown, and goes out to the town bridge to kill himself.
Clarence jumps into the water, knowing that George will leap in to save him. Clarence takes George on a tour of Pottersville (Bedford Falls) how it would have been if George had never been born. George nearly gets killed four or five different times, before he decides that he wants to live again. George returns home to find the town rallied around him with the money he needs. They sing "Hark the Herald Angel Sings". Even Harry flies in from Washington DC, his own Medal of Honor banquet, to deliver a toast. "To my brother George, the richest man in town". I start crying. They sing "Auld Lang Syne". The movie ends.
Something to be said at the beginning. This movie is of a very odd and peculiar genre. The documentary that I was watching after the movie starring Ed Asner said that people in Frank Capra's day called his movies "Capra-Corn", a pun on the director's last name and how terribly corny his movies are. Everything about this movie makes it seem that it ought to fail. The plot is silly and contrived. The second half is based on a premise nothing short of ridiculous. It's like he was never born? What are you talking about? That was the reaction of the studios as well. Fortunately someone in the world had better judgement.
There are just some little things that make this movie really strong, and the benefit of watching a movie like this over and over and over again is that you stumble upon them. Frank Capra's use of portraits in this film is really spectacular. They're just always in the right place at the right time. When Old Man Gower is upset over the death of his son, his son's portrait is sitting on the desk. It frames the son in the same glowing light that you're sure Old Man Gower is thinking about him. When George is arguing with Potter before the Building and Loan is to be closed down, the framing is such that his father's portrait is floating right over his right shoulder. This entire scene is meant to parallel the battle that his father had with Potter earlier in the movie, and the addition of the portrait just drives it home. Lastly, Old Man Potter's arrogance is just solidified when you see that the man who Mr. Potter most admires hanging on the wall of his office. Yes, Mr. Potter put up a picture of himself.
This movie has a power and a subtlety that just isn't in the images it gives the audience. It's in the fact that this movie tells a story. It spends over the first half of the movie building characters that the audience grows up with and loves like family, then, in a moment of anger, destroys them all only to rebuild them in a powerful final scene. And, the final scene is alone watching the movie for, but it's all predicated on the fact that George thinks he's alone and worthless in his world.
We all think that we're George Bailey. Maybe not right now, but we've all thought that we were worthless and that it just couldn't get any worse. Feel glad that we don't need an angel named Clarence to remind us. We always have this movie and our friends and family. As the immortal ending said, "No man is a failure who has friends".
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Rating: Five out of five stars