Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
Runtime: 130 Minutes
Original UK Release: 1946
In any other hands, the tale of George Bailey's rise, fall and rise again could be a pessimistic and cynical portrait of futility in small-town America, but Capra's remarkably calm direction, it's buoyant performances, endearing characters and incredibly joyful screenplay elevate all of its simplicity to heightened levels of cultural prominence and endearment.
James Stewart's performance as George Bailey is possibly the defining role of his life and career; the idealistic dreamer whose tremendous faith in the people around him informs and enriches his characters utter selflessness. Donna Reed's performance as his one and only love, Mary, is so beautifully grounded in their spectacular chemistry that you'd never believe they were nothing but a fiction.
There is an awful lot of sadness to be overcome before the status of its title takes precedence over the final act, but every moment of emotional heartbreak and melodrama is met and countered by one of celebratory circumstance in the face of all adversity. Even though much of the films most memorable story points occur in the films closing half hour, the rest of it is setup with such fascinating construction and humanity that by the time the more fanciful elements come into play, the two feel as one universe.
Goodrich and Hackett's screenplay is a one of a kind marvel, balancing so many wonderful characters at once in tandem with an aura of honest realism, and Joseph Walker, in one of his final collaborations with Capra, puts some of his best artistry on display.
It's a Wonderful Life is not only Frank Capra's greatest collaboration with James Stewart, but Capra's masterpiece that holds the immensity of the human spirit and endurance close to its heart, and captures the seasonal spirit better than any other picture without being about Christmas itself. It's a wonderful film.