Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Eleventh in a 12-part series.
It just isn’t Christmas without Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which despite the reputation enjoyed by its creator for mawkish displays of “Capra-Corn” is a tale with a healthy dose of nuance. The film takes its time in showing one man’s dreams crumble and fall away as his life goes on – only to be replaced, of course, by the fulfillment of a different set of dreams that makes George Bailey “the richest man in town.”
The music in It’s a Wonderful Life is appropriately non-lavish: a duet between Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver, serenading young lovers George and Mary (James Stewart and Donna Reed); a rollicking dance number that gives those same crazy kids a chance to fall into the high school swimming pool; and a two-part harmony arrangement of “Buffalo Gals” that proved once and for all that Stewart was an actor, not a singer. (The saddest musical moment: when George is contemplating having to stay in Bedford Falls for another four years, staring at forgotten travel brochures as a band somewhere in the distance is playing Al Jolson & Vincent Rose’s “Avalon.”)
Those numbers help to propel the plot, while their homespun sincerity complements the film’s small-town aesthetic. And the signature scene is the last one, as George is saved from ruin by the timely arrival of virtually everyone in Bedford Falls: they’ve shown up with open wallets and open hearts to lift up the man who kept them going through their own dark times. Then they all sing – first “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” then “Auld Lang Syne.” As impromptu community choirs go, they sure can carry a tune.