Recommended Viewing Situation:
Tipsy from mulled wine and dangerously dehydrated from crying.
Running Time: 135 minutes
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Philip Van Doren Stern
Cinematographers: Joseph Biroc and Joseph Walker
Awards: Golden Globe, Best Director, Frank Capra
Step out of the exit at Highbury and Islington station, chuckle to yourself at The Famous Cock pub, cross the road and walk by the beautiful Georgian houses on Compton Terrace and you’ll find yourself at the door of Union Chapel. Roughly twice a year, usually at Halloween and Christmas, Union Chapel in Islington holds a film screening. I’ve been to several – memorably, Colin (2008), a zombie film with a budget of £45, Young Frankenstein (1974), and, last Christmas, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). When I saw that they were showing It’s a Wonderful Life again this year, I wasn’t disappointed – far from it, because it’s unquestionably the best Christmas film there is (with A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) coming in a close second). I watch it every year and the only thing that could make it better is watching it on the big screen, in an atmospheric chapel, with mulled wine and incredible acoustics.
Union Chapel is a listed building which hosts not-for-profit events including comedy nights, live music and film screenings, amongst other things. There’s a bar upstairs which funds the restoration of the chapel and all the money from ticket sales for the screening of It’s a Wonderful Life went to The Margins Project, a charitable organisation which offers support to the homeless and those facing homelessness.
The Winter Warmers event started early, with a Santa’s Grotto and craft tables upstairs in the bar, where children made themselves paper crowns adorned with glitter and tinsel. In the chapel, there was a screening of Raymond Briggs’ (master of nostalgic graphic novels about both Christmas and nuclear disaster) The Snowman (1982), with Howard Blake’s score played live by the East London Brass Band. I enjoy The Snowman as much as the next person (meaning I moan a bit whenever my mum suggests watching it, but it’s nice when I settle down), however, I don’t think I ever fully appreciated it until now. Live, it seemed to be especially emotive, and when a young woman stood and sang the vocal portion of the score I may have cried a little – not for the last time that day.
Remember the episode of Friends – ‘The One Where Old Yeller Dies’ – in which Phoebe doesn’t finish watching It’s a Wonderful Life because it’s so sad? Well, it would be a huge lie to say it won’t make you cry. Looking around the chapel, I was by no means the only person quietly sobbing into a fistful of tissues. But you need to watch it until the end.
It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), an ambitious young man who is disappointed with how his life has turned out. His plans to travel the world and go to college are put on hold repeatedly as he makes sacrifices for his family and neighbours, taking over his father’s building and loan company when he dies to prevent heartless banker Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) buying up the town. George feels like he has achieved nothing with his life, but while his nobility and principles may have held him back, without his realising it, they have transformed the lives of everyone around him. When his forgetful uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces £8000 and George faces bankruptcy and prison, he considers ending his own life, believing that his life insurance makes him worth more dead than alive. His guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) appears to talk him out of it, and George concedes that he doesn’t want to die – it would be better if he’d never been born. This inspires Clarence to show George exactly what would have happened if he’d never existed, and, presented with a bleak alternate reality in which others never benefited from his kindness, George finally sees how much his life is worth. As someone who suffers from depression, I’ve always found the message of the film a comforting reminder of how precious my life is, and how important I am to other people. Generally, the film treats mental illness in a remarkably positive way, considering it was made in 1946.
Jimmy Stewart’s performance as Bailey is relatable and, at moments, deeply touching. If you’re a dreamer, you may have experienced the cognitive dissonance of falling in love and being thoroughly frustrated by it scuppering your plans. George’s occasional outbursts of anger at finding himself in love and trapped in his hometown are truly heart-breaking. Nonetheless, he and sweetheart Mary (the ever-graceful Donna Reed) are definitely “goals”. The scene at Harry Bailey’s (Todd Karns) graduation party where George and Mary dance as the floor opens to reveal a swimming pool beneath them is so romantic, it may have ruined me for all other men. ‘George Bailey, I’ll love you until the day I die.’
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