It's a Wonderful Life courtesy Paramount
DVD Tuesday: It's a Wonderful Life - wonderful, not sappy!

Don't groan! I'm recommending holiday perennial It's a Wonderful Life because I think a lot of people refuse to see it because it's picked up a reputation for sentimental uncoolness that it in no way deserves. Far from being the epitome of Capra-corn, It's a Wonderful Life has an edge that never fails to surprise the unsuspecting.

In case you don't know the story: Born and raised in small-town Bedford Falls, George Bailey ( James Stewart) always dreamed of traveling the world, but his dream kept taking second place to family responsibilities, especially to the savings-and-loan association his father established - without Bailey Savings and Loan, heartless banker Mr. Potter ( Lionel Barrymore) would be the only game in town. George married his high-school sweetheart, Mary ( Donna Reed); they have more children than they can comfortably afford and a handsome old house that needs repairs beyond their finances. Out of family loyalty, George continues to employ his Uncle Billy when a more ruthless manager would have canned him, and during the Christmas season, with bank examiners on the way, Billy repays him by losing a significant deposit. Without those funds, Bailey Savings and Loan will be declared insolvent, and George's attempt to appeal to Mr. Potter's better nature ends with the banker calling him pathetic and declaring that he's worth more dead than alive.

It's all too much for George: No matter how he adds it up, his life is a string of miserable failures. He wishes he'd never been born, and since he can't undo what's been done, he decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. He's rescued by an old man named Clarence Oddbody - who jumps off the bridge first, forcing George to save him, and then claims to be an angel, albeit an angel second-class, which is why he doesn't have wings. George dismisses him as a lunatic, until Clarence grants his wish: George finds himself in an alternate Bedford Falls, the one that would have existed if he'd never been born. Let me tell you, the tour of Bedford Falls - now Potterville - is truly grim: The streets are lined with pawn shops and dive bars, George's widowed mother is barely getting by and Mary is an embittered spinster; his brother Harry died when he was 9 in an accident from which George would have saved him; and George's troubled childhood friend Violet (professional slattern Gloria Graham) has become a "dancer."

It goes on and on by the end of the parade of misery, Clarence's gentle observation that "Each man's life touches so many other lives.... When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole," doesn't sound sappy at all. It's pure relief.

Unlike many Christmas tales that tell superficially similar stories about characters who undervalue their lives and learn what really matters and what doesn't, It's a Wonderful Life doesn't feel like a condescending lesson. George's despair rings utterly true because by many standards he is a failure: He's not financially successful, he didn't follow his dreams, he isn't famous (His brother Harry, a war hero, is being honored by the president) and he isn't saintly - when the pressure is really on, he even snaps at his loyal wife and their children.

But he's fundamentally decent, a highly underrated virtue and a very real one. Most of us don't know anyone whose foundation cleans up minefields or who pulled three families out of a burning building. But most of us do know people who, faced with a choice between selfishness and thinking of others, do the right thing. And that's not maudlin or sentimental at all.

Things to consider:

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Previously in DVD Tuesday:

All About Eve
Sweet Smell of Success
Daughters of Darkness
The Crazies
Blade Runner
A Simple Plan
Taxi Driver
Hot Fuzz
Ace in the Hole
Eyes Without a Face
Citizen Kane
La Jetée
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
Bob le Flambeur
Near Dark
Perfect Blue
Pan's Labyrinth
Les Girls
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
The Queen
Expresso Bongo
I'm Not Scared
Shocking Grindhouse Double Bill! - Scanners and The Candy Snatchers
Don't Look Now
Casino Royale
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The Prestige
13 Tzameti
The Departed
Kiss and Make Up
Kiss Me Deadly
The Long Good Friday
What Alice Found
The Devil's Backbone
The Descent
The Devil Wears Prada
Pandora's Box
The Thief and the Cobbler
Panic in the Streets/Jack Palance Interview
The Pusher Trilogy
Sunset Blvd.
In Cold Blood