It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead-end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real-life figures. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance at the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the makeshift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films, you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise, nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotions like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so-called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small-town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise, the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status, the film was shown on some TV networks in 24-hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those networks as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.

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Trouble Along the Way (1953)

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Duke Is Ziggity!

Westerns have never been a favourite genre of mine unless one is really exceptional or unique. So it should come as no surprise what ends up becoming my favourite John Wayne movie was his foray into Cary Grant-esque style comedy, something much more up my alley.

The Duke isn’t a favourite actor of mine yet I’ve always found to be strangely charismatic and engaging; although coming from Ireland, John Wayne is the one classic actor most people have not only heard off but have seen a movie from. Trouble Along The Way shows he was capable of a larger range than he’s given credit for although judging from the movie’s success audiences much preferred seeing him doing his usual stick of westerns and war movies. It’s apparent the studio must have put a lot into this movie hoping for it to be a big success, employing a top director and top cast, plus it feels like this role was written for Wayne. Despite the film being a chance of pace for him, the role still feels like a very John Wayne character; very American, very macho and very much an individualist.

The movie’s plot revolves around two things I’m not a fan off, sports and religion. I am informed the subplot involving the economics of college football (not to be confused with the sport of soccer, which in Europe is also called football, go figure) is more relevant today in a world where the financing of college athletics has gone out of control than it was in 1953. As for religion, although I am an atheist and staunchly anti-religious I can still enjoy movies about religion. Trouble Along The Way manages to express religious themes but never feels like I’m being preached towards. The movie even takes advantage of its religious based plot with some great religious jokes (“Couldn’t have booked one Protestant school for a breather”).

Charles Coburn’s role as Father Burke is an archetypal representation of Catholic clergy in old Hollywood films as an entirely trustworthy figure of respect such as Spencer Tracy in Boy’s Town and Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces. This being an attempt to appease the legion of decency; have a film condemned by the legion and you lose out on box office intake. I’ve always found this representation of clergy in classic Hollywood films fascinating as it provides a complete contrast to the media reports of today of priests molesting young boys. Trouble Along The Way provides Coburn with one of his best roles and a showcase as to why he’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors.

You can believe Wayne’s daughter played by Sherry Jackson really would be the daughter of a John Wayne character. Most movie kids get on my nerves, so whenever one does manage to impress me I have to give a special shout-out. I just wish Donna Reed could have had more screen time. In fact, my reason for watching this film was my enjoying of the other Wayne-Reed pairing They Were Expendable. Her character could easily have been a real “love to hate” role as a heartless social worker but brings sympathy to the role partially due to the character’s surprising backstory.

The other thing I must address which makes me wonder if John Wayne had much input into the film’s production is the speech Charles Coburn gives at the end of the film in which he discusses Steve’s unethical practices when assembling a football team in which Coburn states “He did it in his way, perhaps the only way”. Accompany this with the statement Steve makes when he’s been caught out that “I don’t regret what I did” makes me ask the question is this in any way referencing (and possibly defending) Wayne’s then-recent involvement in the Hollywood Blacklist, or am I just looking into it too much?

From the outset I was expecting Trouble Along The Way to be some light, enjoyable fare; but to my surprise, it proved to be a film with deep and complex story and characters. At nearly two hours it may seem lengthy for a comedy but the length is justified as there is so much going in the plot but never feels overbearing. The film is brave enough to leave questions unanswered. It’s not a depressing ending but unlike other light-hearted Hollywood films of the time, it doesn’t wrap everything in a neat bow. At the end of the film, the main characters have to learn to let go of something important in their lives. It’s disheartening seeing Sherry being taken away from her loving father to live with her mother and having to drop her tomboyish lifestyle in order to be integrated with other kids her age, but I guess the movie is just telling us that life is tough and you don’t always get what you want.