Here’s a shot of two well known personalities. And you probably can guess which movie they were shooting. (It’s a Christmastime staple, one of the most beloved movies to emerge from Hollywood’s classic period).
We’re talking, of course, about 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life. And that’s the film’s 49-year-old director, Frank Capra, yukking it up to the left; and an almost boyish-looking James Stewart, all of 38 at the time, to the right. (One wonders what prompted those guffaws?)
You probably have the movie’s plot down by heart by now since It’s A Wonderful Life has become a yuletide perennial — rivaling Citizen Kane and King Kong as the most durable classic ever to come out of RKO, one of our favorite studios.
We love this picture. Stewart is a marvel as George Bailey, the upright local banker of Bedford Falls, pushed to the edge of suicide until it’s pointed out to him how the town would have suffered and deteriorated had he not lived.
What wonderful performances from Stewart, Donna Reed as his devoted wife, Lionel Barrymore as the mean banker — one of the most memorable villains in classic movies — Thomas Mitchell as the pathetic Uncle Billy and Gloria Grahame as Violet. In all, It’s A Wonderful Life is a dark classic redeemed by an inventive Hollywood ending. A superb movie.
Not everyone shares that view. We recently unearthed a 2014 review from a British critic, Andrew Gilchrest, of the Guardian. His critique is more or less in the spirit of revisionism, that is re-assessing beloved movie classics by contemporary standards, and in many cases finding them wanting. Gilchrest doesn’t mince words:
Well hot dog dickety damn, what it is about this film that makes people love it so much? Is it the bit where the black maid gets spanked back into her kitchen? The bit where the little people of Bedford Falls joyously tip out their entire life savings to rescue the bungling banker?
It’s a picket fence of a film, nauseatingly wholesome as it trundles through 1940’s America like a station wagon on its way back from the mall, a celebration of everything that later directors — from Todd Haynes with ‘Far From Heaven’ to David Lynch with ‘Blue Velvet’ — would come to mock.
I don’t, by the way, think ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is terrible. I just think it’s frequently wrongheaded and desperately overlong. (The picture has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes, modest by contemporary standards. Ed.)
We obviously disagree strongly with Gilchrest. What do you think?