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Weblog Departure: 'Tis the Season - Recalling "It's A Wonderful Life"

NOTE: The following account of the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” has become an annual holiday tradition that was first posted on The Chalkboard on Christmas Eve 2009.


Education and the politics surrounding it can get contentious now and then. So, in the spirit of the season, The Chalkboard is taking a departure this Christmas Eve to recall some favorite scenes from the holiday classic, "It's A Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) playing the lead character, George Bailey. (Please allow me, and enjoy this holiday indulgence!)


I've seen this 1946 film more times than I know, as it has been an annual tradition from youth. In the spirit of good will and lightheartedness, below is a recount of some memorable scenes with commentary thereon, including trivial details I picked up after the umpteenth time watching.


A little backdrop: "It's A Wonderful Life" was Jimmy Stewart's favorite film, and the first he made after being discharged from active duty in the Army-Air Corps during World War II, where he was a combat pilot in the Pacific theater. Stewart voluntarily enlisted in mid-1941 after overeating to gain pounds so he would meet the weight threshold. By then he was an Oscar-winning actor ("The Philadelphia Story," 1940). He would remain in the Army Reserve into the 1960s, reaching the rank of Brigadier General.


You also may notice the movie setting of "Bedford Falls" is likely modeled after Seneca Falls in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, off the NYS Thruway, east of Rochester. Seneca Falls is proud of the honor, and a bridge near its downtown is named the "Clarence Bridge." The movie also refers to several proximate locations including Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira.


Some favorite scenes--for different reasons--in order of appearance in the movie: --


Little George, about 13 years old, runs to his Dad's office, who is pleading with Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, great-uncle of Drew) for more time to come up with a loan repayment; notice the picture on the office wall of President Woodrow Wilson, about 1919. The film's legendary director, Frank Capra, was fastidious about details.


-- Mr. Gower, the drug-store owner, embraces George after realizing a nearly tragic error.


- George, now in his early twenties, walking on his way home, runs into Ernie the cab driver and Bert the policeman. Yes, Jim Henson loved this film and named his famous muppets after these two characters. Notice Bert is reading the newspaper with the headline about the Democrats nominating New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith for President in the 1928 campaign. And, of course, there is Violet, the town tease, who struts her stuff.


-- George eating dinner at home with his Dad. This dialog has both funny and poignant moments where his Dad teaches him a lesson about life and the important things they do helping people own their own homes. Annie, the maid, tries to listen in and George notices: "Well, Annie, why don't you draw up a chair? That way you'll be more comfortable and you can hear everything that's going on!" Hilarious. Best of all, a humble George, his voice lowered, at the scene's conclusion: "Pop, you want a shock? I think you're a great guy."


-- George and Mary (Donna Reed) dancing "The Charleston" at his younger brother Harry's high school senior prom. Note the actor previously spurned by Mary, the one who then unlocks the floor with the pool underneath, is Carl Switzer who played Alfalfa in "The Little Rascals."


-- Board meeting of the Bailey Building & Loan, after Mr. Bailey's death. Notice every trustee is a white male over the age of 55 - another sign of the times. George’s bungling uncle, Billy Bailey, is played by Oscar-winning character actor, Thomas Mitchell, who appeared in other famous contemporary films including “Gone WithThe Wind,” “Stagecoach,” and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.”


-- Dialog between George and Mary at Mary's house. George wants to be disinterested, but succumbs while both share the phone in each other's space, talking to pal, Sam Wainwright ("Hee-Haw!"), played by character actor, Frank Albertson. I love the "Buffalo Gals" music in the background.


-- George saves the Building & Loan on his wedding day, now 1932. How obnoxious is that guy, Tom, who demands his $242.00? Notice the picture of President Herbert Hoover on the office wall; another example of Capra being meticulous, exhibiting the times.


-- Mr. Potter gets a briefing in his office from one of his employees about all the new homes popping up in town, financed by the Bailey Building & Loan. The briefing gets interrupted by the secretary calling Potter on the buzzer on his desk. He responds, "Tell the congressman to wait!" Timeless.


-- Mr. Potter tries to hire George to coax him away from the Building & Loan (including offering him expensive cigars), which he's trying to take over and destroy. Potter astutely describes George's frustrations in life, e.g., stuck in Bedford Falls while his friends go places; making only $45.00/week; "playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters!" (sheesh). George's expression during this is priceless: "What's your point, Mr. Potter?"


-- George returns home Christmas Eve night (now 1945) from work after the $8,000 is lost. Frank Capra marvelously captures so many subtle family details. Also, there are gripping moments, e.g., George hugging Tommy, the youngest of his four children, as he contemplates his fate over the missing money.


-- George prays at the bar ("Martini's") as Nick (Sheldon Leonard) the bartender, checks up on him. -- Dialog in the toll-house between Clarence the Angel and George, after Clarence "rescues" George from the water below the bridge. "I knew if you thought I was drowning, you'd try and save me - and you did. That's how I saved you," Clarence tells him. George asks sardonically, "You wouldn't happen to have eight thousand bucks, would ya? ... comes in pretty handy down here, bub." George finally tells Clarence to "shut up, will ya!" and "go off and haunt someone else."


-- Back at the bar ("Nick's") with Clarence, George reacts to seeing Mr. Gower.


-- The final scene. With many of the townspeople gathered at the Bailey's home, brother Harry, just arriving from Washington after being awarded the Medal of Honor, offers a toast: "To my big brother George, the richest man in town." The singing of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is a great selection by Capra; a song of spiritual redemption that truly captures the Christmas holiday.


Okay, I've recounted much detail, I admit. Enjoy the movie if you haven't seen it, or enjoy it once more this during this special time of the year with family and friends; be restful and recharge your batteries; and be hopeful for the new year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.


Peter Murphy

for The Chalkboard


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