Published June 15, 2006
LOS ANGELES – George Bailey's brother proclaimed him the richest man in Bedford Falls. Now the story of the despondent businessman, who got a chance to see how ugly the world would be without him, has been proclaimed the most inspiring American movie.
Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," starring James Stewart as the disillusioned George, led the American Film Institute's list of inspirational films revealed Wednesday in the group's annual top-100 TV special that aired on CBS.
"We all connect to that story. We may not all connect to the story of a fighter from Philadelphia or a singing family in the Austrian Alps," said the TV special's producer, Bob Gazzale, referring to two other films on the list, "Rocky" and "The Sound of Music."
"But there's no way to get away from the inspiring story of George Bailey. It relates to us all."
"To Kill a Mockingbird," with Gregory Peck as the upright Southern dad seeking justice for a wrongly accused black man, was No. 2 on the list chosen from 300 nominated films on ballots sent to 1,500 filmmakers, actors, critics and others in Hollywood.
Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" was fourth, while another Capra-Stewart collaboration, the political saga "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," ranked fifth.
Spielberg landed two other films in the top 10, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (No. 6) and "Saving Private Ryan" (No. 10). Rounding out the top 10: "The Grapes of Wrath" (No. 7), "Breaking Away" (No. 8) and "Miracle on 34th Street" (No. 9).
The 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life" is the story of a man who dreamed of escaping his dreary town and making a mark in the world. Circumstance traps George Bailey in tiny Bedford Falls, where he runs his family's penny-ante building and loan and battles the town's miserly overlord.
One Christmas Eve, facing scandal and criminal charges after his uncle misplaces $8,000, George is driven to attempt suicide, but an angel steps in to show him all the good he's done and what a harsher place the world would be without him.
As family and friends rally to his rescue, George learns to embrace the life he thought he loathed and receives a heartfelt toast from his sibling: "To my big brother George — the richest man in town."
With five films, Spielberg led directors in the top 100. Spielberg's others were "The Color Purple" (No. 51) and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (No. 58). Capra was next with four films, his others being "Meet John Doe" (No. 49) and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (No. 83).
Sidney Poitier and Gary Cooper each appeared in five films. Poitier had "In the Heat of the Night" (No. 21), "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (No. 35), "Lilies of the Field" (No. 46), "The Defiant Ones" (No. 55) and "A Raisin in the Sun" (No. 65). Cooper was in Capra's "Meet John Doe" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," plus "The Pride of the Yankees" (No. 22), "High Noon" (No. 27) and "Sergeant York" (No. 57).
The films ranged widely, including sports tales ("Hoosiers" at No. 13 and "Field of Dreams" at No. 28), real-life drama ("Apollo 13" at No. 12 and "What's Love Got to Do With It" at No. 85), musicals ("The Wizard of Oz" at No. 26 and "Fiddler on the Roof" at No. 82), science fiction ("Star Wars" at No. 39 and "2001: A Space Odyssey" at No. 47) and family films ("Pinocchio" at No. 38 and "Babe" at No. 80).
The oldest movie was Charles Chaplin's 1931 silent film "City Lights" (No. 33). The newest were two from 2004, "Hotel Rwanda" (No. 90) and "Ray" (No. 99).
Past AFI lists have included best comedies, movie quotes, songs and love stories.
With the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the war in Iraq and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the group wanted to examine films that offer hope.
"This was kind of an interesting moment in American history, coming off Sept. 11, being at war, having natural disasters of such tremendous impact. What role do the movies play at times of really emotional turmoil?" said Jean Picker Firstenberg, AFI director. "I think the movies are fundamentally a very inspirational way we communicate, and we thought this was an exciting opportunity to recognize those films."