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This film from 1946 has rightly become classic Christmas viewing.  It was James Stewart’s favourite of his own films, and it’s easy to see why.  He plays George Bailey, a kind hearted businessman who has looked after others and sacrificed his own dreams to help his own family, but now he finds himself contemplating suicide as his business looks set to fail, and he faces jail for a mistake that he didn’t even make.  An angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) is dispatched to earth to help George (Clarence hopes that if he can help George, he might finally earn his wings), and shows George what life would be like in his town, if George had never existed.

This is just such a lovely film.  It certainly isn’t particularly light-hearted or funny (it touches on themes of poverty, lost dreams and suicide), but it is still a film that makes you feel happier for having watched it.  James Stewart had such a likeable manner about him, and nowhere is it put to better use than here.  He plays George as a thoroughly decent and generous man, but he is not without flaws.  Indeed his sense of generosity makes him a less than brilliant businessman, and he keeps employing his hapless uncle -a decision that may lead to George’s downfall.  Donna Reed is luminous and beautiful as George’s wife Mary, and is certainly not just a token wife.  She is a strong and kind woman, who dearly wants to see her husband happy.  Henry Travers is adorable as Clarence the angel – he might not be a very intellectual angel, but he has buckets of compassion.  The villain of the piece is Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter – a rich businessman who threatens to get rid of George and his business – and make many of the citizens of the village poor and trapped in unhappy lives.  Barrymore is excellent in this type of role!

The ending is perfect, and yes I was sitting there with tears rolling down my face!  It’s a perfect film to watch at any time of year (but especially at Christmas), and really reminds us of how all of us can make a difference to others.

Year of release: 1946

Director: Frank Capra

Writers: Philip Van Doren Stern (short story),  Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson

Main cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Toff Karns

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This 1948 gangster/film noir movie has Humphrey Bogart in fine form as Frank McCloud, a world weary ex-soldier who comes to visit the family of a dead comrade at their hotel, only to find that the establishment has been taken over  by a team of gangsters, led by Johny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson).  Bogart’s real life wife, Lauren Bacall plays Nora Temple, the widow of Frank’s friend, and Lionel Barrymore is her father-in-law.  Tensions rise between the hotel owners and Frank, and the gangsters, until events must surely reach a climax…

This is not normally my favourite genre of movie, but the excellent cast make it compelling viewing.  Bogart is superb as Frank, who has already seen too much violence and doesn’t want to get involved in more. Bacall is sultry and sensual as Nora Temple, and Barrymore is just excellent as James Temple.  Edward G. Robinson is also suitably menacing as Johnny, and Claire Trevor as Johnny’s alcoholic girlfriend, deservedly won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her part.

The film is set almost entirely within the hotel, with just a few outdoor scenes, and this serves to crank up the tension.  Throughout most of the film, you can sense the atmosphere between the two parties.

Plotwise, it is actually quite thin – the gangsters want to escape to Cuba, the hotel owners just want to get out of the situation alive, but they don’t want the gangsters to get away with their crimes (which mount up as the film progresses).  The enjoyment of the film comes from the different characters and the dynamic between them.  Acting was generally less subtle and more theatrical when this film was made, but here the subtle nuances and fleeting looks between characters makes this film deeply layered and lends to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

There’s not much more you need to know about the plot – but this is definitely a film worth seeing, as much for the uniformly excellent cast as for the storyline itself.

Year of release: 1948

Director: John Huston

Writers: Maxwell Anderson (play), Richard Brooks, John Huston

Main cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore

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