|Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey|
"Youth is wasted on the wrong people."
Facing what he sees as the worst crisis of his life, suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart) attracts the attention of an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers of Dark Victory), who reviews his past history while up above, then descends to earth to show George what life would have been like for everyone if he had never been born. This fantasy comedy-drama is a wonderful if imperfect picture with a terrific performance from Stewart and a marvelous supporting cast. Bailey is certainly a flawed hero, which makes him more interesting -- and perhaps less sympathetic -- as a character. If, to paraphrase, the measure of a man isn't what happens to him him but how he reacts to it, then George certainly fails the test. When $8000.00 disappears and George realizes he and his business can be ruined, and he might even face criminal charges, he takes it out on his wife and children, and even screams at some poor teacher on the other end of the phone when he goes home. In real life people have faced worse situations and still kept their heads, but poor George simply becomes hysterical. Part of this, of course, is because George never wanted to stay in the little town of Bedford Falls and take over his father's business, Bailey Building and Loan, in the first place; and his frustrations have finally caught up with him [it's possible that not quite enough is done with this aspect of the story]. One could also wonder why, if George no longer exists, and no one in town can recognize him, they can still see and talk to him. The business with George's wife, Mary (Donna Reed) turning into a stereotypical old maid (if he was never born) complete with glasses and drab hair is unintentionally comical, and most of the business with Clarence, especially the prologue in heaven, is rather tiresome. Still the movie is well-made, very well-directed by Capra, beautifully photographed [you must see the crisp new digitally remastered version to fully appreciate this], and has several superior performances in addition to Stewart's. Thomas Mitchell is excellent as Uncle Billy, who misplaces the money and is cruelly treated by his nephew. Lionel Barrymore is the cackling personification of hate and greediness as Mr. Potter (who never does get his comeuppance). H. B. Warner [City of Missing Girls] scores in his sad portrait of the druggist, George's employer, who is mourning his son and nearly makes a fatal error. There are also nice moments from Lillian Randolph as the wise Bailey maid, Annie; Robert J. Anderson as young George; and Todd Karns [Andy Hardy's Private Secretary] as George's brother, Harry. The movie is full of interesting touches, such as the menagerie Billy keeps in his office, including that persistent crow, and the squirrel that climbs on his shoulder as if in sympathy.
Verdict: That ending is pure fantasy all right, but if you take it with a grain of salt this is still an entertaining and admirable picture. ***1/2.