pleasantly surprised

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Earlier this week I watched It's A Wonderful Life for the first time. I know!! Crazy, right? It has only been on television 20,000 times every December of my life, but I'd never managed to see more than a couple of minutes. Zuzu's petals might as well have been the capital city of Mars for all the sense it made to me, and that's the way I liked it.

However... it's one of those things so pervasive in American culture that I felt like I had seen it in some ways, and to judge it based on SNL sketches and a vague sense that when a bell rings an angel gets its wings hardly seemed fair. (See also: The Graduate (are you trying to seduce me?) and Citizen Kane (Rosebud!), both of which I've watched for the first time in recent years.) Plus, the DVD was sitting right there on the shelf at the library AND I had recently watched Arsenic and Old Lace, so I felt like I had a Frank Capra obligation/opportunity.

I was so pleasantly surprised! I know movies usually become classics for a reason, but there's always the sneaking snobby lowest common denominator suspicion that if everybody loves it so much can it really be very good? I think the answer for this film is yes, but with the caveat that it is HUGELY sentimental and has some interesting ideas about accepting one's lot in life that I don't necessarily agree with. (let's just say that in my version, George and Mary dump the kids off with his brother in Rochester for a few weeks and go on a freaking vacation.)

I was surprised that suicide was so openly discussed in the film. I know it must have been a huge problem after the war (not that George Bailey was in the war), but I still found it startling. Why? I don't know. Maybe because it's advertised as this great holiday feel-good classic but it's basically hours of "see how decent George Bailey is? let's screw with him some more!" like some kind of Christmas Carol/ Trials of Job hybrid. What saved it for me is that George wasn't a saint. He was crabby (then despondant) and KNEW he was getting the shaft but he kept on doing the decent thing. (the exception being Mary -- apart from the scene where his mother basically boots him out the door and says "don't come back until you're married" it seemed to me that being with her was not some forced economy or second choice on his part, which made me glad.)

Things that made me laugh:

+Pottersville (in the vision of Bedford Falls where Old Man Potter has had his way because George Bailey had never been born): it was all neon and gambling, dance halls, bars and more neon and god knows what else. Sinful! You can tell because of the NEON. (which appears quaint and benign when considered with 2007 eyeballs; "dime a dance" doesn't seem so lurid, but maybe any dance lacking the words pole or cage sounds harmless to me.)

+ Potter's fancy carriage that he rode around town in had a big HP on it, which made me think Harry Potter and I kept hoping he'd come out in a puff of smoke or wear some wizarding robes or say "take me to Hogwarts immediately" or SOMETHING.

+Bert and Ernie! The cop and the cabdriver!! Is this where the muppets got their names?

+The Fate Worse Than Death for Mary in the Georgeless version of the world was that she had become a.... spinster! (cue George wailing and rending his garments in horror upon hearing the news.) Spinster was reinforced by the visuals of a) working at a library, b) wearing glasses, and c) having giant catepiller eyebrows, because apparently you weren't allowed tweezers unless you had a MAN. (my eyes are rolling FOREVER AND EVER.)

And, like a sucker, I totally cried at the end! Normally I am flinty hearted and resist (and RESENT) blatant tugging at my heartstrings (despite being a total sap -- I overcompensate), but they pulled the Jen Cry Card and I had no power over my tear ducts. I have discovered that so far the only consistent cry-point for me is when help arrives from an unexpected quarter. (this is why the only time I cried at all in the whole L-O-N-G Lord of the Rings trilogy was when those crabby elves showed up to help at Helm's Deep. Then I cried again a half an hour later when the banished Rohirrim showed up with Gandalf.)

Anyway, It's a Wonderful Life was such a nice surprise. I always forget how much I like Jimmy Stewart. He was so great in The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner, Rear Window and many others, I'm sure -- those are just the ones that popped into my head right now. It's another case of an actor or a movie being so ubiquitous and beloved that I take them for granted, which is something I'm trying to do less frequently.

For bonus fun and a 30 second IAWL recap, go watch animated bunny version at Angry Alien. It's 30 seconds of fabulous, is what it is.
5 comments on "pleasantly surprised"
  1. It's A Wonderful Life, The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz are 3 movies that I have seen parts of but I do not think I have seen them from start to finish. Maybe I should. And without commercials.

  2. It made me cry too, also against my will since it was so expected. I even cried in the one-man play version at PCS last winter. Ah me.

  3. BBD, I can't believe you haven't seen Sound of Music!! It's a lot of ridiculous cheesy fun until the Nazis show up. (which is where I stop watching it when I re-watch.) I think without commercials and not hacked to bits like they always do to show them on television is the way to go.

    Leslita, I feel much less lame knowing that you cried against your will as well. How was that one man play version? I had an opportunity to go, but didn't because I hadn't seen the movie!

  4. I know that I have seen most of these movies, but maybe it has been so long that I don't remember or perhaps when I was a wee lad I feel asleep while being forced to watch 4 hour movies on tv?

  5. the forced to watch 4 hour movies on tv thing sounds about right for me. (except we never watched IAWL.) I know that's how I endured the Wizard of Oz -- I don't even know if I've seen the whole uncut for tv version! I should rectify that -- and sort of related. It's probably a SIGN that on this Harold Arlen Song Book there's both Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Ding Dong the Witch is Dead (which sounds really surprising and fun to me all jazzed up.)


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