When his savings and loans company crumbles, George Bailey (Stewart) stands on a bridge on Christmas eve, contemplating suicide. Then and angel (Travers) visits him, and shows him what the world will be like without him.
The kind of experience movies were invented for, director Frank Capra's 1946 festive fairy tale returns with opportune timing; first as a fitting tribute to the late James Stewart; second, with everything from Jerry Maguire to A Life Less Ordinary being dubbed Capra-esque, as a chance to rediscover the genuine article; and third, as Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without it.
For those poor impoverished souls yet to encounter its magic, IAWL focuses on George Bailey (Stewart), a small town resident so riddled with problems that he is contemplating a Yuletide suicide. George's life is subsequently played out in flashback - his scuppered hopes of travelling the world; his romance with childhood sweetheart Mary (Reed); his protecting the town from the avarice of the evil banker Potter (Barrymore) with his own savings and loan company. When the latter falls to ruin, George is about to throw himself off a bridge but Angel Clarence (a beguiling Henry Travers) gives him the chance to see what the world would be like if he did.
Underpinned by this fascinating philosophical conceit, IAWL is one of the most watchable of all movie classics. Capra's celebration of the power of community and defiant optimism is orchestrated with consummate mastery, perfectly augmenting big time laughs, touching sentiment and exuberant charm with imagination and beautifully rendered tone.
Although peppered with colourful, sharply drawn characters, this is Stewart's movie, instantly loveable as a small town dreamer who sacrifices everything for others. His journey to despair and back warms the cockles like little else. Enjoy it in a cinema so you can sob among others.