It’s a Wonderful Life

Movie Information

In Brief: I first saw It's a Wonderful Life (1946) when I was in the throes of Frank Capra idolatry — something born of being 18 and having read his autobiography — and I was primed to see it. I also don't think I have ever been more disappointed by a movie in my life. Had Capra built it up too much in his book? Had I built it up too much in my mind? Were my tastes changing in spite of myself? Yes to all three, but there's more to it than that — so much that there's no way to fit it in here. It requires following the whole of Capra's career and the creation of his persona by writer Robert Riskin (not involved on this movie). It hardly matters. It's a Wonderful Life — mostly due to its holiday-season ubiquity on TV during its years as a public domain film that could be run for free — is now an unassailable classic, a Christmas staple and an institution. If you love it, that's fine. It will always be a thudding disappointment to me — one with a whiff of the same insincerity I feel in songs about the virtues of having nothing that are invariably written and performed by millionaires — and that's fine, too.
Genre: Fantasy Drama
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi
Rated: NR

The Hendersonville Film Society will show It’s a Wonderful Life Sunday, Nov. 22, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

12 thoughts on “It’s a Wonderful Life

  1. sally sefton

    I am curious about something. Did you ever see this film again after the first disappointment? i am not one who adores the movie like some friends and family members, but I do know that after having lived a life, the lens I am looking through is much different. I am more sentimental now. But I am also impatient with anything or anyone that feels like a manipulation. For me, the movie seems longish, and I seem impatient for the angel moment at the end, but to me Jimmy Stewart is endearing. Pretty sure we part company on this.

    And are you implying that your knowledge of Capra’s career and persona has impacted the way you view the film?

    • Ken Hanke

      Yes, I’ve tried the movie on at least three occasions, since I don’t like to leave my assessments to when I was 18. I continued to dislike it. If anything, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve disliked it. I can be as sentimental as anyone — but not if I feel that the sentiment is dishonest, which I do here. And, no, I do not find Stewart endearing. You’re quite right in that,

      Implying that my knowledge of Capra has impacted the way I view the film? Well, how could it not impact it? I can’t just flush everything I know about Capra and his films. It’s part of a body of work. Maybe that’s even more notable because Capra was one of those rare directors of that era — like DeMille and Hitchcock — whose name was known to the general public. As such he’s more generally known for a body of work than most, which may even play into why this movie was a flop in 1946, losing a lot of money and effectively ending Capra’s career as a major director. I came to it after having seen The Bitter Tea of General Yen, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, Riding High, Here Comes the Groom, A Hole in the Head, and A Pocketful of Miracles. (I’ve since seen all the rest of the extant films he made.) And I’d read — at least twice — Capra’s autobiography.

  2. Dino

    I first saw this movie in the early 80s, in the summer, before it was a Christmas Classic, so I’ll always love it. Although the more I watch it, the more irritated I am at George’s refusal to believe Clarence is an angel. Also, Burt the cop shoots into a crowd!

  3. peter moss

    Wonder movie. Wonderful actors. Wonderful script.
    Today’s young movie goers have no clue about great movies like this or The Great Escape or the Guns of Navarone or even who the 1st Steve McQueen was.
    Errol Flynn? Cary Grant? Myrna Loy? Yul Brenner? Forget about it.
    Nick the bartender (Leonard Sheldon) went on to be the producer of the Andy Griffith Show.

  4. Al Paige

    It’s very rare that you and I part company on a movie, Ken – I always read your reviews when trying to decide whether I’m likely to enjoy a movie I haven’t yet seen, because we seem to have very similar taste. But here’s the exception which proves the rule. I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life three times now and I can’t detect a false note in it, the sentiment seems very genuine and heartfelt to me. I just adore the movie (although it is too long). Mind you I know virtually nothing Capra and nothing whatever about the ‘persona’ you allude to in the review, don’t know whether that helps (in that this might make one more aware of manipulation at work??)

    • Ken Hanke

      Of course, I can’t say how much my knowledge of Capra — and his persona (crafted by leftist writer Robert Riskin — husband of Fay Wray ) as a populist and champion of the “little guy” — impacts my view of this. Considering I’d already seen 10 of his movies and read his autobiography, it seems impossible that it doesn’t, but this is the film that started my disenchantment with him. And this was before I knew much about Capra that Capra didn’t write himself, before I had seen the movies pre-Riskin, and so had no frame of reference to say why it rubbed me the wrong way, especially since I was primed to love it.

      But it’s as a wrote above: “If you love it, that’s fine. It will always be a thudding disappointment to me — one with a whiff of the same insincerity I feel in songs about the virtues of having nothing that are invariably written and performed by millionaires — and that’s fine, too.”

      • sally sefton

        It seems unfair to judge a piece of art, a film, a play, even a critic based on their life. All that is written about anyone must be taken with a teaspoon of salt. Every writer embellishes and sensationalizes on the subject they are writing about.

        You can dislike the film. That is obviously your choice. But to write that you have been biased because of your knowledge of the director is offputting and seems unfair.

        God knows I have set aside rumors and articles about Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Oliver Stone and many more artists in order to experience the art piece without the noise of all of that.

        • Ken Hanke

          Neatly side-stepping a few things here, aren’t you? Like the fact that I’m speaking primarily not of his personal life, but of a public persona crafted for him by another man — one that Capra didn’t personally subscribe to, but which he figured out made money and adhered to (or made the attempt) even after Riskin quit writing for him. To me, this goes way beyond his “personal life.” It’s not like I’ve “attacked” Capra for beating his wife (so far as I know he didn’t) or popping starlets in his office (so far as I know he didn’t) or that he was a fan Mussolini (which he was). This is more about the basic hypocrisy of espousing a philosophy you don’t actually believe for power and money. And note carefully that I have also stated my distaste for this film long before I knew most of this.

          Do you honestly mean to tell me that there are no artists you eschew because of their politics?

  5. sally sefton

    Yes. I know you stated your distaste for the film before knowing about Capra. So why not leave it at that? You are vague about what aspects of Capra’s life were manufactured to make money. What are you referring to? Did he come over from Italy as an immigrant, as a member of the working class? Was that made up? You allude to aspects that are made up. What are they? Is it the Mussolini part that annoys you? The fact that he was a fascist? We just watched a movie about shoving an entire group of people and artists aside for their politics.

    And no. I am not influenced by an artist’s politics. I don’t like Ted Nugent’s music and that is not because of his politics. I am not a fan of Ronald Reagan as an actor or a president. I just quickly researched 60 conservative actors and I found that I was surprised that some of them were in fact conservative. But it doesn’t impact my views on them. I just sit in the theater or on my couch and judge how authentic they are when they appear on the screen and if I bought what they were trying to sell in the course of the movie or play or television show.

    • Ken Hanke

      Well, let us just disagree and drop it, shall we? It should be easy since you find my approach off-putting.

  6. sally sefton

    I apologize if I have offended.

    I am fresh from seeing TRUMBO. I also have had people boycott some of my plays because they didn’t like my politics.]
    That was hard to take. Especially if the play in question had not the slightest hint of a political message.

Leave a Reply to peter moss ×

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.