Oh, of course I’d seen this before, are you kidding?
And so have most of you, probably. This ode to small-town Americana and the nobility of a simple, ordinary life has become a holiday tradition for many; it’s a fantasy tale, a sort of American Christmas Carol in which our hero George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) gets some divine intervention one Christmas Eve to help him mend his ways. Except unlike Scrooge, a miser who learns how his penury has hurt himself and others, George is an good but ordinary man who believes he’s done nothing for the world – and learns how great his impact has been on those around him.
This film has become so ubiquitous that people today mainly watch it as comfort food, or to riff on it. A theater company I once worked with even turns it into a holiday event, staging a sort of karaoke-meets-Rocky-Horror-floor-show version of the whole thing with any guests welcome to play a role. Parts are cast by lot, all the goofiest props get dragged out at the ready, and the party acts their way through the whole film, each person jumping up on stage to play their bits and then returning to the house to watch. It’s completely and gloriously ridiculous – little kids could end up playing mean Mr. Potter, big burly guys find themselves playing George’s beloved Mary. And each year, before we begin, the artistic director orders the person playing George to do their biggest and broadest and most over-the-top Jimmy Stewart imitation for a few seconds to get it out of their system.
….I say all that as context so you understand how very surprised I was that this rewatch kinda…got to me.
I resisted at first. I mean, it’s It’s A Wonderful Life. I’ve seen it dozens of times, both the original and the act-along. I played Zuzu one year, for God’s sake. I should be immune to this film by now. But for some reason – whether it was a middle-aged thing, or whether I’ve just immersed myself in classic film by now, or I’ve just had a bear of a week at work or something – I found myself really invested in the story this time, in George’s disappointment that he never got the chance to live the big dreams he had at the movie’s start and how his wings had been clipped by life, and how he thought that he was a failure – and all the while he was surrounded with love and laughter and was cherished by all who knew him.
I’ve always thought the scenes with George and his beloved Mary (Donna Reed) were some of the best. Reed and Stewart have fine chemistry, but also those scenes crackle with wit. Mary is a sweet girl next door, but she is also sassy, and especially during the scene where George and Mary walk home after a dance singing “Buffalo Gals”, there’s some lovely, lively flirty stuff going on between them of the sort that keeps the sweet talk from getting too saccharine. And that in turn leavens the saccharine stuff so that it goes down way easier; and before you know it you’re sucked into watching George’s story and empathizing with this simple man.
The theater company act-alongs always end with a little holiday party; mixing and mingling over cookies and egg nog. After our very first act-along, I walked over to the concession table to where the artistic director stood – and was shocked to see him sniffling and wiping away tears. “Are you okay?” I asked him. He just looked up at me, then chuckled sheepishly as he sniffled more. “Damn Frank Capra,” he finally said.