“It’s A Wonderful Life” turned 70 in 2016, rereleased on DVD and Blu Ray for its 70th anniversary, and is regularly aired during the holidays.
The film has become a traditional Christmas movie much like “A Christmas Carol” has, and though that may be true, I have often wondered what has made “It’s A Wonderful Life” stand the test of time.
It was originally released in 1946 and to my knowledge, has never been remade or updated, though it has been remastered for high definition, and there is a colorized version.
The film is old — an example of filmmaking techniques that have long since been modified, or improved, especially in terms of cinematography and pacing. The camera doesn’t move. There is no zooming in on an actor, nor is there any panning. Most of the shots in the film are static shots with the camera in a fixed position.
In one scene where George Bailey — the main character of the film — is about to sit at the table for dinner, the lamp hanging from the ceiling is blocking his face as he begins to say something, which he finishes as he sits down.
If the film were redone today, this scene would be shot with multiple cameras set up at different positions along a 180-degree semi-circle, so that all angles of the scene could be captured, avoiding the problem of an actor’s face being blocked by a piece of the set.
Unlike today’s fast-paced editing and camera work, the pacing of the film is slow and each scene is played out in front of the camera with barely any transition to other shots, except in scenes where a close-up adds to the drama of the scene, or a change in scenery. However, both of these issues are attributed to the limits of single camera shooting, which was a practice dating back to the 1890’s when motion pictures were first invented and lasting until 1951 when an episode of “I Love Lucy” became the first multi-camera film.
While I watched the movie on my TV, I thought those things added to the nostalgia of watching a film that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents would have grown up with or seen in the movie theater. Clearly, my perception of the film being outdated was changing, and I began to get a sense of why this movie is loved by multiple generations of people.
I felt as though I were peering into a time capsule, experiencing through my vision, what life must have been like during the early part of the 20th century — from the non-rotary phones to cars that are now 100 years old. There is even a scene which takes place in 1914, and a horse carriage is seen transporting the miserly bank owner Mr. Potter to his office at the bank in the town of Bedford Falls.
Seeing life as it was in decades past is only a fraction of the films relevance. It is the story that brings all these elements together, creating the vast appeal that “It’s A Wonderful Life” has and changing my perception of the film.
The tale tells of George Bailey, the chief secretary of Bailey Brother’s Building and Loan, who spent his life thinking of others rather than himself, despite his desire since youth to leave Bedford Falls and see the world. We see him in a position we all find ourselves in at one point or another: broken down, disillusioned, at the end of our rope, and not knowing where to go next.
We watch as he makes the decision to end his life, yet at that precise moment before he jumps to his demise, he instinctively forgets himself when another man falls in the river below. As a reward, George is given the gift of seeing how different the world would be without him in it.
Therein lies the treasure that makes this film so beloved and humbled by this would-be critic. The message that, like George, we all lose sight of the meaning in our lives, and if for a moment, we could see and know the good we do and the difference our existence makes as George does in the film, we would not want to leave it.
We would instead cherish every moment, every breath, every person we love and who loves us. Not just during Christmas, but every day we have in this wonderful life.