Let’s Talk About… ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1946)

Film #31 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

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The holidays at the end of the year have always been an introspective time for me.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all come within a few weeks of each other.  It’s a time to enjoy family and friends, but it’s also a time that I tend to reflect on the past as well as the future.  The happy memories and the uncertainty of what’s to come seem to make the cheerful moments happier and the sad ones even more melancholy.  It’s A Wonderful Life distills these extremes into a two-hour tale of George Bailey, a man who, at the start of the movie, is on the verge of jail, financial ruin, and suicide. Sounds cheerful, doesn’t it?  Don’t worry.  There’s a happy ending.

It’s A Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey, a small-town dreamer with big plans for his future.  He wants to see the world.  He wants to build things.  He wants to live a big life outside of the constraints of his small town.  He’s a good person who always has the best interests of those around him at heart.  It’s because of his soft-heartedness that he ends up staying in little Bedford Falls rather than living his dreams.  His desires always take a back seat when someone needs help or a problem needs to be solved.  It’s this self-sacrifice and the regret of a path not taken that contribute to the despair he suffers when he finds himself on the hook looking at jail time when $8,000 (six figures in today’s money) is misplaced.

Filled with anxiety over the lost money and guilt-ridden after lashing out at his family on Christmas Eve, he leaves his home to have a few drinks at the local bar.  Remembering a life insurance policy he has, he decides he’s worth more to his family dead than alive and resolves to jump off a bridge to his death.  It’s then that he meets his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows him what the small town of Bedford Falls would be like if he’d never been born.  After a look into an alternate reality where George Bailey never existed he realizes the impact he’s had on the lives of the people around him and resolves to go home to face the consequences.  To his surprise, the whole town has learned of the missing money and rallies to contribute anything they can, more than covering the amount of the missing deposit.  The film ends with a triumphant Christmas miracle and the audience is left with a smile, a tear in their eye, and a warm heart.

Though it doesn’t follow in the tradition of Christmas ghost stories, it’s similar to A Christmas Carol in that it’s a supernatural tale where the protagonists both have a spiritual guide. The difference is that Scrooge is shown the consequences of his actions.  You might say the opposite is true for George Bailey.  He’s shown what would happen if he was never alive…if his deeds had gone undone.

It’s not a pretty picture.  We see, along with George, the way the sometimes small and seemingly insignificant actions of a single person have ripples that affect countless other lives.  Without George, Bedford Falls is a den of iniquity called Pottersville.  Nothing is the same and everything has changed for the worse.  The similarity to A Christmas Carol is in the ending, when George is positively affected by what he sees and gains a renewed sense of purpose.  By the time the whole town shows up to bail George out of his problem, you’d have to be a robot if you haven’t had to tell yourself to keep it together at least once.

Over the years, the fact that It’s A Wonderful Life underwhelmed at the box office and with critics has been overplayed and exaggerated.  It was a financial disappointment that failed to make its money back upon initial release.  And though not universally disliked, critical response was mixed.  Time, however, offered a favorable review that called it one of the best pictures of the year.  Others were less generous, calling it out for its sentimentality and wondering if Capra had lost his touch.  “Capra-corn” was a derisive term that was tossed about.  Despite the criticism, both Frank Capra and James Stewart have said that it’s their favorite film.

James Stewart apparently felt a little nervous in front of the camera during the production.  It was his first film after serving on a bomber during World War Two and he felt “rusty.”  He worked through it with the help of his cast-mates and to this day the film stands as one of his most beloved performances.  In the scenes during his emotional descent, we see a little bit of the darkness that would inform performances later in his career for directors such as Alfred Hitchock.

According to the “making of” feature on the DVD, It’s A Wonderful Life went against the film code of the time, which stated that criminals in film must suffer consequences for their actions. Potter never gets his comeuppance from keeping the Building and Loan’s $8,000.  I had always wondered what exactly happened there.  Did Potter just keep the money?  Probably so.  Schmuck.

So, yes, It’s A Wonderful Life is sentimental.  It’s a romantic idealization of small town life.  It’s simplistic.  And big problems in life, when there ARE solutions, they’re often harder to come by.  But there is a lesson in this sentimental, cheesy old movie.  Our lives do matter.  How we treat people does make a difference.  Sometimes our dreams go unfulfilled.  But that doesn’t mean our lives are devoid of meaning.  For one reason or another sometimes we don’t get to take the road we want to take.  But that doesn’t mean that the journey will be any less rewarding or that there won’t be moments of joy or transcendent meaning any less profound than the ones we think we’ve missed out on.

Finally, here are a few links to some It’s A Wonderful Life-related videos.  Merry Christmas.  Happy New Year.  Whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year, enjoy them.  Be present in each moment this season.  Let yourself feel the joys as well as the melancholy.  Let yourself matter to someone else…and let someone else matter to you.

Original trailer:

The emotional climax of the film:

A short “making-of” feature hosted by Tom Bosley:

The fabled SNL lost ending in which Potter gets what’s coming to him:

http://www.ebaumsworld.com/videos/snl-its-a-wonderful-life-lost-ending/81249131/

 

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Yes it was and I’ve never seen the sound of music either

  • Manuel Orozco

    I’ve heard of them yes just saying

  • 🎅Poppity🌟

    The named films are both from Frank Capra and the Andy Hardy series was from MGM. 🙂

  • Manuel Orozco

    DIdnt see any of the other movies you mentioned

  • 🎅Poppity🌟

    Hmm, I think I’ve seen You Can’t Take It With You but I’m confusing it with images of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Jean Arthur was a Capra fav. He and Barrymore were indeed terrific together. Lionel was actually the first man to play Andy Hardy’s father in the film series but didn’t continue on after the ‘pilot’ film. He was so sweet and terribly good at playing the bad guy! 🙂

  • 🎅Poppity🌟

    I’m glad to hear it! And that was the first time you watched Mary Poppins? Incredible. I actually sat and watched the second half of The Sound of Music last night. It was in lovely HD. The story is so-so but it was nice to watch all the same.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I liked it a lot
    Followed it up with mary poppins.
    Didn’t like that one as much

  • Manuel Orozco

    I loved Barrymore and Stewart together in You Can’t Take It With You even more. That was a year after my school did Its A Wonderful Life. And I got to play a cop for when the fireworks go off.

  • 🎅Poppity🌟

    I don’t know if I can find the words to express how much I love this film. Like most people, I started watching it from repeated television showings and the instilled idea that it was a Classic so you ‘had’ to watch it. As a youngster, I could hardly get past the black & white film (yes, there was a time …) and I certainly could not appreciate the film’s beautiful, touching themes. Growing older, I have watched this film countless times on my own, with my husband, and with my children. It never gets old. In fact, I think I love it more each time. The character of George Bailey is particularly dear to my heart. I’ve been where he has been, especially in regard to how he reacts when he comes home and is overwhelmed with life, acting out violently in a very uncharacteristic manner. My God, that scene is is so raw and true. I do pity George because I think he got the short end of the stick on a lot of things in life but I admire the family that he has built, moreover the unconditional love of his wife. This is a very real movie, showing unglamorous aspects of life and the extreme reactions that we can sometimes to have to the pressure we all have to endure.
    I must mention my admiration for Clarence, the angel with no wings. Henry Travers had a long and varied career but I always identify him with Clarence – in a good way, of course. He played the role wonderfully.
    And yes, I would have loved to see Potter get his despite it being against the spirit of the story. I console myself by thinking about how wonderful Lionel Barrymore was off-screen. In fact, it was he who convinced Jimmy Stewart to come back and starting doing movies again after the War. 🙂

  • Manuel Orozco

    Not a favorite of mine but worth watching. My dads side always watches it on Xmas day

  • 🎅Poppity🌟

    I’m so happy for you! How did you like it?
    I haven’t gotten time to watch it yet this Holiday season but I’ll get there. 😉

  • Manuel Orozco

    I remember watching this twice seven years ago during my last holiday season as a teenager. George Baileys emotional journey consoled me with accidental suicide thoughts and being a year and a half away from high school graduation. Back in 2010, my school did the play version as their fall show. What the experience taught me was to make the best of growing up in a changing world gone crazy. Even if you have random thoughts of death, to not let these thoughts stop you from living life to the fullest.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I’m watching this for the first time right now