Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Film Night: It's a Wonderful Life

Tis the season to be jolly... So Modern Heat/Presents author Heidi Rice couldn't resist the opportunity to pull one of her all-time festive favourites out of the Santa Sack and spread some good cheer into the winter chill.

I'll grant you that It's a Wonderful Life isn't exactly a chick-flick in the conventional sense — and James Stewart's suicidal savings and loan man is hardly anyone's idea of an alpha male.

Consequently, Frank Capra's yuletide classic may not be everyone's idea of a film to make you drool over the festive season. But luckily, here at the PHS, we're about much more than hunky guys and romantic fantasy right?

And anyway I'd argue that my festive favourite does have a hunky guy in it — maybe not hunky in the Hugh in a towel sense, but certainly hunky in the hugg-ably gorgeous sense — and is also in many ways a romantic fantasy, because this film is about a strong, resilient, wonderful marriage. It's about family and friends. It's about all those mundane everyday things that you take for granted but which give your life meaning.

And it's about what happens after your Happy Ever After ... and how you make it last forever.

And if this film doesn't leave you with a warm glow and a great big Ahhh wrapped around your heart then you'd have to be a close personal friend of Ebenezer Scrooge. So there.

Alright, already, enough with the justification. Now I'm going to give you a quick run-down of the plot - for anyone who has somehow managed to miss this film over the years (where have you been every Christmas since 1941...?).

James Stewart is George Bailey, the owner and manager of a small-town savings-and-loan which is about to go tits up. He wanted to see the world as a kid, had big plans to get out of Buffalo Falls and make a name for himself. But George is a guy who's always done the right thing for his friends and family. So when he fell in love with the girl next door, he married her and had four kids. When his father died, he took over the family business even though he didn't really want to... And when his uncle Billy mislaid thousands of dollars of the bank's money, it's George who's set to take the fall.

And in amongst all the good things he did, in amongst the happy times and the tough ones, George lost sight of his dreams. And so when everything starts to collapse around him - or so he thinks - one Christmas Eve, George decides to take his own life. But as he's about to take a header into the town's ice-filled river, up pops Clarence, a trainee angel to jump in first (yes, George is a bit miffed that he only warranted a trainee one, too). George, being George, saves Clarence before thinking about himself and his problems - giving Clarence the chance to get to work.

What does Clarence do?

He gives George a glimpse of what good ole Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never lived. It's basically Dickens's A Christmas Carol with a clever 20th-century twist.

So George discovers that the brother he saved from drowning as a kid, died then and never got the chance to grow up and become a war hero - and all the men he in turn saved also died. George finds his beloved wife Mary is a lonely spinster and doesn't even recognise him. He runs home to find the derelict house they bought and rehabbed together is a broken ruin still. His kids don't exist and miserable old man Porter - the big greedy banker who has always hated George and his savings and loan - has taken over the quaint, sweet little town and turned it into a garish, soulless, neon-lit, strip mall. Yes, times are terrible in Bedford Falls without George. Everything he knows and loves is gone.

So then all Clarence has to do is ask George if he really wishes he'd never lived? And the answer is a great big resounding 'No!' Not just from George, but from everyone in the audience. And as George runs down the snowy Main Street and shouts Merry Christmas to all those people and places he knows and loves (and who now know him, too), he's got his mojo back (so to speak) and he at last realises that actually small dreams can be better than big dreams, especially if you know how to appreciate them.

So what's the moral of the story?

Maybe it's that we should all learn to cherish the little things. Maybe it's that every life has value (even nasty old Mr Porter's, who hasn't got a single redeeming feature). Maybe it's simply that when the chips are down you should look at what you've got not what you haven't. All good advice and all very heart-warming (especially if you've just been down a heaving Oxford Street trying to do all that last-minute Christmas shopping you should have done months ago).

But what I love about this film, what never fails to send that little shiver down my spine is the way it portrays George and Mary's marriage, because at the end of the day, that relationship is the bedrock of George's life. Mary's a sweet, pretty, no-nonsense and utterly competent and patient wife and mother. She adores George, but she also knows him, inside and out - his faults as well as his strengths.

And that makes them the perfect partnership.

That doesn't mean the kids don't get on their nerves, or that they don't get on each other's nerves, but it does mean that they love each other, and that they're willing to go that extra mile to make things work. George isn't the only one who's made sacrifices, he's not the only one who's had to work and struggle and keep things together when it would have been easier to let them slide. Of course, this being George's story, we don't see a lot of Mary's struggles, but they're there, especially when George looses it with her and the kids and then slams out of the family home - on his way to a date with the icy river and Clarence.

And Mary's the one who gets them their happy ever after in the end, because she tells all their friends and family of the trouble George is in. George being a bloke, of course, doesn't think of that one (must be something to do with that old Y chromosone 'asking for directions' thingy). And they all chip in to help with a few dollars here, a couple more dollars there - and in the end it really isn't about the money, it's about the love behind it. Cue another great big Ahhh.

So, is George and Mary's marriage a romantic fantasy??

You betcha, but isn't it one we can all aspire to? And isn't that the same quality you love to unwrap in your favourite category romance? For me, the fast cars, the luxury homes, the designer wardrobe, even the glistening pecs, the awesome six-pack and the sex god abilities between the sheets are just the sparkly tissue paper. It's what's underneath that counts - the good, strong, steady dependable heart that's beating just for you. That's the real present, the gift you want that will keep on giving...

Allright, Heidi's getting a little carried away now, but you get my drift. So now to the crunch.

Warm and fuzzy rating? An indisputeable 10 out of 10.

Especially if you watch this film on Christmas Eve in front of your bauble-laden tree and a roaring fire with either friends or family or the love of your life - or even just your favourite category romance - snuggled by your side.

Heidi's latest Modern Heat, Pleasure, Pregnancy and a Proposition, came out in November in the UK and is due out as a Presents in the US next March.

Check out her website and/or her blog for details, or just to have a natter.

And her new year's resolution is: to blog more than once in a blue moon.


  1. This is one of my favourite films, a must watch at Christmas.
    George is a fantastic hero -- ultimately a man who chooses to live for his love rather than to die. It is when he sees Mary as a spinster that everything hits home and he knows he wants his old life back. He is a great boy next door sort of hero, a quiet alpha if you will. All of his life, he has gone around saving other people's lives but he did not realize it. He took the hard option and looked after people. He is full of integrity and guts.
    I have been saving this year's viewing, but might have to insist on watching it tonight.

  2. This is in my all-time top three films. And it's a MUST for Christmas.

    Michelle's point about him being a quiet alpha... yup. And he has a lot in common with my medical heroes!

    Brilliant choice, Heidi :o)

  3. Cheers Kate and Michelle

    Yup, definitely a film to spread lots of sweetness and light (and get across the true meaning of Christmas) before we hit the presents and turkey, eh.

    Like 'the quiet alpha' idea too. Now why didn't I think of that???

  4. I don't know where I was when this movie was playing back in '41--Oh, hang on. Yes I know! I wasn't born yet! I was still hanging around in a chiffony tea-dress in my second last incarnation. Or was that Keira Knightley?

    Anyway,strangely for a person who has been drawn to old black-and-white movies all her life, (throwbacks to hauntingly familiar times?) I haven't seen it yet. Something to look forward to, after your glowing recommendation, Heidi.

    I have seen one where James Stewart had a tall imaginary rabbit called Harvey,and it charmed me to my entrails. I did like Jimmie a lot.
    He had such a unique charm and a sweetness.

    NOw have you seen 'Picnic' with William Holden and Kim Novak? Yes, it is entirely relevant, because Kim Novak was often Jimmie's co-star, so its only natural one should think of 'Vertigo', and then 'Picnic.'

    Bill took his shirt off, and oh, that musical score. It's so rare to hear it these days, but if ever you hear of me on my deathbed, please someone rush to me with 'Moonglow' from the soundtrack so I can go out in a state of ecstasy.

    (Just home from a Christmas party at the Hilton and still a bit euphoric after finishing fourth book.)
    (It must have been moonglow..da-d-d-dah.. Way up in the blue da-d-d-dah...It must have been moonglow...The night that I saw you Dah-da-da dah-d-da!

  5. Ahh yes, I've seen Picnic and it's a classic, but I don't remember the theme tune that well, must have been cos I was totally fixated on Bill Holden's chest...

  6. Also here in Finland it's the one film they show every Christmas. There seem to be some films they show every single year on certain days, like Väinö Linna's Unknown Soldier on Independence day or Dinner for Two on new years eve.