It's A Wonderful Life is my dad's favorite holiday movie, and so it's played in the backgroud of more Christmas Eve gatherings and winter-break Sundays than I can remember. I've seen this movie more times than I can count, however I never really sat down and watched it. For years I dismissed it as just another overrated holiday special; my distaste for the movie continued even after I discovered that black and white movies themelves weren't the dull artifacts I'd assumed them to be. Last night, however, I took a much-needed break from finals week to watch the film as part of the Honors film series I've been attending all semester (it replaced Tommy Boy, which is apparently not academic enough). I felt like I was watching it for the first time. Despite the myriad viewings I whined my way through for years, I had somehow managed to miss large chunks of the story that turned out to be fairly important to differentiating the movie itself from its many parodies and imitations.
For example: Potter. I was vaguely aware that the plot involved a miserly old man, but I never picked up on the Potter's Field and Potterville and other references, and I definitely never realized just how much screen time he really got. And speaking of characters I never paid attention to, has there always been an Uncle Billy in this movie? Thomas Mitchell put in a wonderful performance here as the good-hearted but bumbling drunkard, and I'm glad to have finally taken notice of it.
I also have to say that it was the first time I really saw James Stewart as a good dramatic actor. He's always kind of struck me as kind of an overgrown kid, with those lanky limbs and that boyish face, and I usually associate him with lighter comedic roles, such as Macauley 'Mike' Connor in The Philadelphia Story. He starts out a typical good guy in this film, too, but by the time George Bailey hits rock bottom, when he's sitting in Martini's getting drunk and praying for a miracle, I absolutely believe Stewart as a man with no visible way out.
While I don't think It's A Wonderful Life will ever be my favorite movie, my dad can look forward to a much less-protested viewing this Christmas. Seeing it as a movie instead of an obligatory family tradition was certainly an interesting experience. It also makes me wonder what other movies might go unappreciated just because they're so omnipresent. Have you ever come across a film you've already seen twenty million times, only to really see it on viewing twenty million and one?