When I was growing up in the '70s and '80s, It's a Wonderful Life wasn't on TV as often as it is now. VCRs were just starting to creep into households, and cable didn't come to our little town until the mid-'80s. So the closest thing I had seen to It's a Wonderful Life was the gender-reversal Marlo Thomas made-for-TV remake, It Happened One Christmas. I haven't seen that in years, but it debuted in 1977 on ABC and costarred Orson Wells (who was selling no wine before its time), Wayne Rogers (Trapper John!), Cloris Leachman (who received an Emmy nomination for her role as angel Clara Oddbody), Doris Roberts (long before Remington Steele and Everybody Loves Raymond), C. Thomas Howell (Ponyboy!), and Christopher Guest ("These go to eleven.").
I have seen snippets of the original Jimmy Steward-Donna Reed classic over the years here and there, but never the whole thing. Until now. Now I can say I've finally seen It's a Wonderful Life. I mean the whole movie, start-to-finish in one sitting. And, just to up the ante, I saw it on the big screen.
We met my parents at the Akron Civic Theatre on a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, and took in a holiday classic. What a great movie. I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked at just how fantastic this movie is. After all, it's directed by the legendary Frank Capra -- who was behind two of my all-time favorite movies: It Happened One Night (1934) and Lost Horizon (1937). I can't count how many times I've watched those two movies over the years. But somehow It's a Wonderful Life got by me.
And Jimmy Stewart. Good lord. I have loved him in everything from The Philadelphia Story ("C. K. Dexter Haven you have unsuspected depth!") to Harvey to all of his fantastic work with Hitchcock... Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and the genius turn as L. B. Jefferies in Rear Window. And he is mesmerizing in his "everyman" persona here as George Bailey.
Donna Reed's performance as Mary Hatch Bailey is simply gorgeous. The scene where Mary and George first set eyes on each other as young adults at the high school dance... Man! What an amazing scene that the Stewart and Reed telegraph beautifully, then transition perfectly into the comedy of the gym floor opening to the swimming pool! All the way to the final, emotionally moving scene, I was completely sucked in to this movie. And at the end, there was nothing left to do but surrender to the emotion of it all and, yeah, I was more than a little choked up.
It was amazing to see this classic movie on the big screen. And I hope it's memories like these that the kiddo remembers years from now. Among family, entertained by the famed Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ beforehand while the atmospheric clouds drifted by and the stars twinkled overhead, there was no better way I can imagine being introduced to this film.