“It’s a Wonderful Life” will enjoy just that at the b.o., and eminently deserves to do so. In the wake of the billowing ballyhoo which has preceded the first entry from Liberty Films, will come resurging word-o’-mouth to accelerate the whirring of theatres’ wickets. After a somewhat clammy cycle of psychological pix and a tortured trend of panting propaganda vehicles, the April-air wholesomeness and humanism of this natural bring back vividly the reminder that, essentially, the screen best offers unselfconscious, forthright entertainment.
Frank Capra and James Stewart, in returning to films after long years in uniform, endow the pic with its most telling contributions. Herewith, Stewart touches the thespic peak of his career. He hasn’t lost a whit of his erstwhile boyish personality (when called to turn it on) and further shows a maturity and depth he seems recently to have acquired.
Capra brought back to “Life” all his oldtime craft, delicate devotion to detail and character delineation as well as his sure-footed feeling for true dramatic impact, as well as his deft method of leavening humor into right spots at right times. He again proves he can fashion what ordinarily would be homilizing hokum into gleaming, engaging entertainment for all brows-high, low or beetle. Capra may not have taken here the stride forward in film-making technique he achieved in “It Happened One Night,” but no past Capra celluloid possessed any greater or more genuine qualities of effectiveness.
The tale, flashbacked, essentially is simple. At 30 a small-town citizen feels he has reached the end of his rope, mentally, morally, financially. All his plans all his life have gone awry. Through no fault of own he faces disgrace. If the world isn’t against him, at least it has averted its face. As he contemplates suicide, Heaven speeds a guardian angel, a pixyish fellow of sly humor, to teach the despondent most graphically how worthwhile his life has been and what treasures, largely intangible, he does possess. The recounting of this life is just about flawless in its tender and natural treatment; only possible thin carping could be that the ending is slightly overlong and a shade too cloying for all tastes.
Stewart’s lead is braced by a full fan-spread of shimmering support. In femme lead, Donna Reed will reach full-fledged stardom with this effort. As a Scrooge-like banker, Lionel Barrymore lends a lot of lustre. Thomas Mitchell especially is effective as lead’s drunken uncle; as parents, Beulah Bondi and Samuel S. Hinds catch the spirit. Other standouts are H. B. Warner, Frank Faylen and Ward Bond; they make much more of small-town character roles than usually rather hackneyed parts receive. Two relatively new faces, Todd Karns and Gloria Grahame, score as youthful contemporaries of star.
Productionally, every value is milked. With the use of new technique, employing CO2 base, snow is facsimilied far better than ever before. Bulwarking Capra, the cameras of Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc caught all the flavor and nuances; latter is a newcomer who was elevated to lensing when former had to leave during shooting. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score enhances, especially making more poignant the closing dramatic sequences. He has composed for most Capra pix and never more compellingly than in this. Jack Okey’s art, especially in the exterior scenes, is fetchingly natural.
In working with the writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Capra obviously helped inject the feel and spirit he wanted, while his partners’ calm comedy sense frequently flavors. Jo Swerling’s additional scenes, unidentified, patently parred the rest of the script.
1946: Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (James Stewart), Editing, Sound