Film fanatics and friends Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen. With just three films left on each list, no-one wants a bad score for one of their absolute favourites. Thank goodness there is no more Orlando Bloom or Ingmar Berman.
It’s Fred’s turn, and with impeccable timing, he’s got the most celebrated Christmas movie ever made at number three in his list. Starring James Stewart, and directed by Frank Capra, did it tug the Akram heart-strings?
You can read the entries from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.
To have a look at what Fred has picked so far, click here.
Likewise, for Yasser’s choices, click here.
Fred: We are into my top three – three films that are in a league of their own – and at number three is a very appropriate film for this time of year, Frank Capra‘s ‘It’s A Wonderful Life‘
Yasser: You actually introduced me to this, earlier in the year
FS: Does it stand up to repeated viewings?
YA: I’ve seen it four times, now, within a year
FS: That’s good news
YA: It is just brilliance. Sheer and utter brilliance
YA: Out of all the films on your list, one would assume that ‘Back to the Future‘ was my favourite, and they would have been right… a year ago
FS: I think I’m going to enjoy this chat
YA: This film is the ultimate and definitive Christmas movie
FS: It sure is
YA: It’s not even a Christmas movie, let’s be honest. Only the end takes place at Christmastime
FS: Well, it’s got nothing to do with Santa, elves, decorations, turkey, or even Christmas Day, but it was based on a story that was in a Christmas card
YA: I did not know that. It must have been a big fucking card
FS: The film’s director Frank Capra is well-respected, but is seen as a purveyor of very sentimental Americana – so-called ‘Capra-corn’. How familiar are you with his movies?
YA: … and you know, I never thought that an actor from yesteryear would become one of my favourites of all-time, but Jimmy Stewart is right up there
FS: That is a victory in itself. You spoke about how highly you rated him when we discussed ‘Anatomy of a Murder‘. What is it that makes him so great?
YA: I think it’s his voice. He sounds genuine and humble. He’s very convincing
FS: He is an everyman figure. An honest, believable performer, whether he’s in a comedy, a thriller, a western or a drama. After Laurel & Hardy and Spencer Tracy, I’d say he’s next on my list of favourites
YA: The war changed him, though, didn’t it?
FS: People think it is Alfred Hitchcock who first explored Stewart’s dark side, but for all its sentimentality, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ – his first post-war movie – is pretty dark in places. George Bailey (Stewart) is not ‘Mr. Perfect’. He contemplates suicide, loses his temper with his kids, he’s utterly desperate at times…
YA: Yeah. Stewart portrays it very well. You don’t get mad at him for losing his temper, you pity him. He’s like the every-guy superhero – self-sacrificing for the greater good. That’s what makes me relate to and love George Bailey
FS: It’s a well-written character. You really want him to make a success of his life and escape little Bedford Falls
YA: He does a lot for his loved ones and his community
FS: He’s one of the pillars of the community. He stands up to mean, money-grabbing Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) for the man on the street, often to his own cost
YA: This takes its toll on him
FS: That’s right. As each opportunity passes him by, his temper gets shorter, the temples get greyer and the bags under his eyes get darker
YA: He carries on, though, as he knows it’s the right thing to do
FS: Where does George Baily rank in the Stewart performances you’ve seen?
YA: You know how it is with me. I have to feel some form of connection to the film to like it, and George Bailey has an enduring story
FS: I’d like to talk about some of the other actors that we meet during George’s life story
FS: Lionel Barrymore plays Mr. Potter. Did you think he was a good villain?
YA: What a fucking miser. That greedy bastard reminded me of Scrooge
FS: Yeah, in a way some of the characters are fairly broad. George is quite complex, but Potter is just plain nasty. The standard of the acting, though, is very high and Barrymore drags Potter back from the brink of panto
YA: He was really good. You could sense his malcontent for the Bailey Building & Loan, and you could feel his greed when his corrupted mind saw an opportunity to expand his empire at the expense of others
FS: This all reaches its agonising peak when George’s Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) accidentally leaves the Building & Loan’s entire bankroll inside Potter’s newspaper. My head is in my hands at that point – every time. What did you think of Mitchell?
YA: He was adorable, wasn’t he?
YA: Not at the end, though. I was mortified when it all goes wrong for him. He was another, like George, that you really felt for
FS: His apparent silliness in the first half makes his anguish, and George’s anger with him, all the more moving
FS: How about Gloria Grahame? What did you think of her?
YA: Violet (Grahame) was a slag. She was a sket
YA: (laughs) Yeah she was good. She played a sket very well
FS: Finally, before we talk about the films final quarter, what did you think of Donna Reed?
YA: She could really act. I love George and Mary’s (Reed) endearing relationship. When they are walking home from the party together, it’s really sweet. You know the bit where he offers to tie a lasso around the moon, pull it down so she can swallow it, and it’ll dissolve and all the light will come out of her fingertips and hair?
YA: Then, right in the middle of this romantic scene, something terrible happens. That’s the thing with this film, man. It’s a real roller coaster of emotions
FS: It sure is. That’s why it’s in my top three
YA: I think this, and the beginning in heaven, are probably the weakest points of the film
FS: No way! Surely this is the section that makes the film a classic?
FS: … but?
YA: I dunno. The fantastical element ruins the harsh realities of real life in the film, like ‘A Matter of Life and Death‘
FS: I know people who sit through the rest of this, just to watch the final half-hour
YA: Real life shit mixed with crazy stoner shit that doesn’t sit with the tone of the film. It’s a tonal shift
FS: I’m stunned. It’s just a fantasy film – a fairy tale, if you like
YA: It’s just an observation. I still like this sequence, I’m just pointing out how different it is from the first two acts of the film
FS: But to say it’s the weakest… For me, it’s the best section. I love the whole film, but it’s that last quarter that pushes it so high on my list
YA: I just wasn’t as emotionally connected to it as I am with the rest of the movie. I think the sequence is very important in helping George realise how significant his contribution to life has been. It’s not like that final ballet in ‘Singin’ in the Rain‘ where it’s good, but adds nothing to the story
FS: You’re the first person I’ve ever met who prefers the back story to the fantasy sequence
YA: The very end is the best part, for me. Only at the end does George realise how much he is worth, with or without money
YA: Why do you like the film so much?
FS: It’s the film on my list that elicits a strong emotional response from me every time I watch it. I always laugh at the funny bits, and I always feel tense during the tense parts, and I always, ALWAYS cry. Every time I watch it it’s new to me, even though it’s one of the films I’ve seen the most in my life. I always think ‘this time, Uncle Billy won’t be so careless’ or ‘this time, George will go and work for Sam Wainwright’ (Frank Albertson)
YA: I’m with you on that. I’ve seen it four times in a year and every time I felt the same emotions as the first time I saw it. I don’t cry, but I feel a lump in my throat, my eyes well up
FS: When George is desperate and he goes home to where Mary is decorating the tree and George just grabs Tommy and hugs him as he starts to cry… Oh God! It gets me every time. That scene of total despair is what makes me cry
YA: All good stuff, but what makes it a top three movie?
YA: What else?
FS: When I think about it, it pulls together elements from other movies on my list. It has a bit of ‘City Lights‘, ‘Back to the Future Part II‘, ‘Wild Strawberries‘, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, and ‘Cinema Paradiso‘ about it
FS: I just have one final question before you sum up. Do you think it deserves to be as high as I have placed it?
YA: Possibly needs to be higher
FS: Oh yeah! On that note you can sum up
YA: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a truly magnificent story about a man and the difference he can make in the world. Throughout his life, George Bailey slowly lets go of his dreams and makes sacrifices for others so they can better themselves. It’s an endearing tale, but an arduous journey for George. The film goes off on a tangent briefly, but that helps the story come to one of the best endings you’ll ever see. It had me laughing, smiling, saddened and slated every time I’ve seen it
FS: Well put
YA: One of the key reasons for that is Jimmy Stewart who is astonishing to watch. However, you cannot fault any of the cast as there are key contributions from Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers and Thomas Mitchell, all under the fantastic direction of Frank Capra. The film is very hard to fault and, unlike my other summaries, it’s hard to pick on technical details when you’re immersed into such an emotional journey. It’s a must-see and hands down the best film on your list so far – 10/10
Next week: It’s the films at number two on the lists. Yasser picks ‘Gladiator’, and Fred goes for ‘Paths of Glory’