Film Review: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life in Concert’ at Chicago Symphony Center

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CHICAGO – The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has come up with the perfect celebration for the pre-holiday weekend, presenting Frank Capra’s classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life in Concert.” On Dec. 10th and 11th, 2016. The CSO will accompany the soundtrack on a restored version of the film. Oscarman rating: 5.0/5.0
Rating: 5.0/5.0

This is “It’s a Wonderful Life” (IAWL) as you’ve never seen it before, restored to a brilliant print and with the original Dimitri Tiomkin soundtrack score enhanced by the majesty of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The film is projected above the orchestra, and with each symphonic moment in the story, the musicians and choral singers take over the music live. IAWL had many variations of themes in the soundtrack, so besides the Tiomkin original score, there are snippets of WW2 songs “Over There” and “This is the Army, Mr. Jones,” along with the holiday songs “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Auld Lang Syne” and the unofficial theme song of IAWL, “Buffalo Gals.”

It’s unimaginable that there is anybody out there that does not know the plot of IAWL, but basically it’s about a man named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who is about to commit suicide. The townsfolk of his hometown – Bedford Falls – is praying for his soul, including his mother (Beulah Bondi), Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), wife Mary (Donna Reed) and brother Harry (Todd Karns). Heaven hears the prayers and assigns a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) to save George.

’It’s a Wonderful Life’ Presented by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

But first, the “Angel Second Class” (he has no wings) has to hear George’s life story. Clarence finds out that George had always wanted to explore the world, but was always being pulled back to Bedford Falls, mostly to operate his late father’s Building and Loan. His main rival in town is Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), and it is their tussle that eventually causes George to contemplate suicide. Will Clarence be able to show George the error of his ways?

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has become the American culture’s official Christmas movie, and it embodies so much of the first half of the 20th Century. The citizens of Bedford Falls go through the flu epidemic of 1919, the Depression of the 1930s and World War II in the course of the film, and interestingly the film does provide a glimpse of how those small towns coped with all that history. The Yuletide theme also doesn’t come in until the end of the film, as all of the angel situations takes place on Christmas Eve – much like Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts.

The symphony is magnificent, and to hear the real live notes being played instead of the scratchy film soundtrack is a holiday treat. I have some familiarity with the film, I’m guessing I’ve seen it over 25 times, if not more. Despite all that, the film resonated again, and is a story that almost guarantees that the shedding of tears. There is not a bad seat in the Symphony Center for the viewing and the listening, and the black and white glory of IAWL is perfectly on display in a restored print.

The dialogue of the film is also subtitled – to understand it at times over the live music – and some of the obscure dialogue comes to light. At one point, Mary is called an “idiot” by her mother, which is hilarious, and we finally understand what Nick the Bartender (future TV mogul Sheldon Leonard) says when he doesn’t recognize George, “I don’t know you from Adam’s off ox.” Which is an old-timey term referring to driving an ox team.

George (Jimmy Stewart) and Clarence (Henry Travers) in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
Photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment

The history of IAWL is fraught with weirdness. The reason it became America’s Christmas movie is because of public domain. The owners of the film (NTA -National Telefilms Associates) let the copyright run out in 1974 – which meant anyone could show it or sell it without paying any “rights” fees – just in time for multiple showings on television (in Chicago, it was the PBS station) and the fledgling videotape industry. The successor to NTA, Republic Pictures, got the copyright back in 1993, and NBC-TV paid 20 million bucks to show the film exclusively. So it went from always be shown constantly to only being shown twice a year…for profit. Mr. Potter would have loved that.

Regardless, the film resonates because of its simple message of reliance on family, friends and the concept of what life means, to get through our trials. We really do have a wonderful life, if we don’t allow the pettiness of envy and money generate fear and anger. “Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan!”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra – conducted by Justin Freer – presents “It’s a Wonderful Life in Concert” on December 10th and 11th, 2016 (3pm), at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. The restored film features Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Gloria Grahame and Thomas Mitchell. Screenplay by Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Directed by Frank Capra. Not rated. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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