About 70 Stratford Picturehouse regulars braved a bitterly cold night in London and came along to the free screening for members of Frank Capra’s superb Christmas movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life”.
James Stewart plays his classic noble and independently-minded character to great effect. As a young George Bailey, he dreams of travel and making his mark on the world. Difficult events force him to stay in a small American town and manage his dad’s ailing savings and loan business, doing good along the way.
Mary, the childhood sweetheart who marries him, is played by the gorgeous Donna Reed. “The Donna Reed Show” was required viewing when I was a child in North America. The classic aspiration of well-raised young women was to be as contented and productive a homemaker as Donna was, in those pre-feminism times.
There’s a bad guy, Henry (never Harry) Potter. He is played with straight sinister glee by Lionel Barrymore. Potter wants to own everything in town and it’s George and the Baileys who stand in his way, helping the little guys buy homes and businesses.
I had only seen this on TV before and it really works best on a big screen. Frank Capra always thought big and his “Lost Horizon” of 1937 is my favourite movie ever. Capra’s pacifist vision of little people making a big difference probably formed my generation, making us believe that – actually – greed isn’t the purpose of life.
Capra expects an audience to be intelligent and he always keeps his focus on ideas about individuality, spirituality, being good and doing your duty. He is, at heart, a populist and this film is entertaining, no matter how deeply or not you wish to see it. But he expects the viewer to think, reflect and act. He believed so much in America as a force for good, full of decent people.
George Bailey gets into financial trouble and faces arrest. A trainee angel called Clarence, played by the sympathetic Henry Travers, comes to try and save George when he decides he should commit suicide.
This is a classic feel-good movie. If you haven’t seen it, you can probably guess the rest. Basically, Clarence shows George how much worse off the town would have been without him. I very nearly cried with joy.
There are some other points to note. The small town in George’s reality is full of little, thriving and independent businesses. In his vision of “hell”, the town is full of gambling and dime-a-dance venues, with lots of neon and rowdy crowds.
Black and white is effective. It’s strange that I remember this being in colour, because it isn’t. The light and shade are used so effectively that you make your own colour in your head.
Gloria Grahame plays the glamourous Violet and she just shines as much more than a counterpoint of womanhood to Donna Reed and the other female players.
The heating has been fixed at Stratford so it was cosy and warm, instead of near-Arctic inside. The very wonderful mulled wine – which you can take into the cinema – heightened the sense of Christmas cheer.
It was an equal pleasure to be out with a bunch of grown-ups who behaved respectfully, didn’t chat or eat loudly and enjoyed themselves. This was a mostly older audience of film lovers.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. May we all have the friendship and peace that Frank Capra wants us to enjoy.