It's a Wonderful Life (Liberty Films; RKO Radio) is a pretty wonderful movie. It has only one formidable rival (Goldwyn's The Best Years of Our Lives) as Hollywood's best picture of the year.*
Wonderful Life is a triumphant Hollywood homecoming for two efficient ex-soldiers. Producer-Director Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), ex-Signal Corps colonel who bossed the making of such outstanding wartime documentaries as San Pietro, has lost none of his civilian cunning at whipping up top-drawer entertainment. He is still one of Hollywood's most talented moviemakers. Actor James Stewart, who worked his way up without ballyhoo from buck private to Air Forces colonel (and bomber-wing commander), has also boosted his rank as an actor. Having put aside his aggressively boyish, aw-shucks screen mannerisms, Stewart's first postwar performance is certain to be eyed respectfully by the people who award annual statuettes for superior acting.
Stewart plays a small-town boy who yearns to run away, explore far, exotic places and make his name in the big city. But family and dull duty hold him down to his father's piddling building & loan business. With a sense of deep frustration, he plunges into his small-town rut, half-angrily marries the girl (Donna Reed), battles the villainous local banker (Lionel Barrymore), befriends his fellow men, shoulders the whole town's troubles. When he winds up, despite all his do-gooding, broke and disgraced, he seriously considers throwing his "useless" life into the river.
Literal-minded cinemagoers need not be alarmed when fantasy creeps into the tale. Fantasy or not, this movie is twice as lifelike as most Hollywood whimsies which are offered with straight faces as slices of reality. "I wish," mourns Jimmy, "I'd never been born." He gets his wishand the shock of his suddenly important lifeby being shown exactly what his family, his friends and his town would be like if he had never existed.
In unskilled hands, this moral fable might have been dully preachy. Director Capra's inventiveness, humor and affection for human beings keep it glowing with life and excitement. Stewart's warm-hearted playing of what might have been a goody-goody role is a constant delight. And if Director Capra's Christmas-cheer ending is slightly hoked up to make it richer and happier than life, that is the way many a good fable
If Hollywood has one noticeable current trend, it is toward independent production (TIME, Aug. 5). Dozens of restless writers, directors and producers are striking out on their own, feeling that they can make better movies away from the too-highly organized bureaucracy of big studios. An estimated 50% of next year's 300-odd pictures will be turned out by some 75 independent producers. Not one of these independents looks more brightly promising than Liberty Films, whose first offering is It's a Wonderful Life.