I’m sure this must seem like it’s a few days late, but please bear with me. I went dark for the two weeks leading up to Christmas doing lots of Christmas stuff and my intention was to get this blog up leading up to the holidays. When it became clear that I just wouldn’t have the time to write this blog post before Christmas, I initially thought that I’d have to skip it and wait until next year. But then I got to thinking about what really makes It’s a Wonderful Life essential, and I realized something very important. It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t essential because it’s one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time (which, of course, it is). It’s essential because it’s one of the greatest films of all time. It’s ranked #11 AFI’s original list of the top 100 films, and was nominated for Best Picture of 1946, losing out to another AFI Top-100 film, The Best Years of Our Lives.
The ironic thing about It’s a Wonderful Life is that it was actually panned by critics at the time of its release as overly sentimental, and the film was forgotten about for a generation. In the 1970’s and 80’s it found new life by constantly being shown on television because it was cheap and easy to get the rights for it. Perhaps many of us were bludgeoned into loving this film, but I actually always avoided it as a kid, and didn’t watch the film in its entirety until I was in college. I immediately fell in love with it, and it has become a staple for me every Holiday season since.
Why it’s Essential
Forgetting the iconic, yet oft parodied moments in this film like when young Zuzu says, “Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings and angel gets his wings!” or the scene of George Bailey (James Stewart) running through Bedford Falls yelling “Merry Christmas!” to passersby and to all of the local buildings and businesses, this is an exceptionally crafted film with a very dramatic story arc and an equally dramatic character arc for the film’s hero, George Bailey. Frank Capra directed this film, and it is my humble opinion that he was one of the top 5 directors of the first half of the 20th Century. Look him up on IMDB if you need to in order to see a list of all of the classic films he directed. Capra was a master story teller, and It’s a Wonderful Life has a classic setup of pitting what the main character wants against what he needs. Immediately after we meet George Bailey as a boy we learn that he yearns to escape the shackles of his small town so that he can explore the world. We continue to learn over the course of the first act after he’s grown into adulthood that he has big ideas and big dreams like building 100-story skyscrapers and mile-long bridges, and those dreams can’t be contained or attained in the small bubble that is Bedford Falls. He is constantly trying to get out, and yet at every turn he is being held back.
It is in these moments of crisis when George is kept from leaving town that we learn about his character and those moments allow us to root for him. He is altruistic in his actions, constantly doing the right thing for others rather than for himself. He can’t afford college right out of high school, so he works for his father at the Bailey Building and Loan in order to save money. While there, he learns from his father that helping people is its own reward, especially when it comes to helping people attain their own homes so that they don’t have to live in the squalor of the slums owned by Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest and meanest man in town. Even with that knowledge, George finds the job tedious and can’t wait to get away. That is, until his father dies suddenly, and the Building and Loan’s Board of Directors will only keep the company going if George takes over. George then sends his brother Harry to college with the money he had saved and waits four more years. When Harry does come back and George is ready to finally hand off the reigns to him, Harry unexpectedly announces that he’s married and his new wife tells George that her father has offered Harry a promising job. The second act begins with us learning that George will never leave Bedford Falls.
However it is in the second act where we also realize that staying in Bedford Falls is exactly the right thing for George. He just doesn’t know it yet. He marries a local girl, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has dreamed of marrying George since she was a little girl. We also see George fight incredibly hard to keep the Building and Load afloat, not for himself mind you, but in order for the people of Bedford Falls to have a means of borrowing money without having to crawl to Potter. We know that George is doing good things, and he knows that he’s doing good things as well, but he’s also struggling with the fact that he’s not making good money. He drives a junky car, and he he can’t afford to buy nice things for his wife. When his childhood friend Sam Wainwright shows up in a big fancy car and invites him to go on a trip to Florida that George couldn’t possibly afford, we see the pain that it causes him, and we also see a not-so-subtle hint of regret. This is a man who believes that he’s more than he’s become because he can’t see the greatness in the little things that he’s doing.
That is where the depth comes in to George’s character. He could be this very nice and altruistic, yet flat character, but Capra and his co-writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett did a great job of providing George with depth by giving him a couple of subtle and important flaws. They made him envious of the outside world and they took away his ability to see the good things that were right in front of him. George Bailey wants to be a great and important person, and he mistakenly thinks that in order to do that, you have to go into the great big world and do great and important things. He doesn’t see that for the people of Bedford Falls, that’s exactly what he’s doing. The third act of the story ends up showing him that fact just as it shows us.
In fact, it is George’s moment of crisis that is one of the strongest and most emotional moments of this or any other film. After Uncle Billy has lost $8,000 of company money and it looks as though George will lose everything and go to jail, he goes to his home and we see him fall apart. He clutches his young son, Tommy and fights to hold back the tears. He then finds out that his youngest daughter Zuzu has become sick because she left her coat open on the way home so that she wouldn’t crush her flower. When some pedals fall off of it, George hides them in his pocket so she won’t see them. He then yells at her teacher over the phone, projecting all of the things that he sees wrong with himself on to her. His oldest son Pete keeps asking him how to spell words and it grates on his patience. Then, to prove how important sound is to film, as all of this chaos is going on, George’s older daughter Jane is practicing Hark, The Herald Angels Sing on the piano, and the same four bars are heard over and over again to the point of being torturous. Finally George snaps and yells at Pete and Tommy before yelling at Jane to stop playing that incessant tune. He looks at a model of the mile-long bridge that he never got the opportunity to build and is overcome by his rage. He kicks the model over and trashes the room in front of his shocked family. All Mary can do is kick him out of the house. George has lost everything, and a few minutes later Potter will tell him that he’s worth more dead then alive.
The reason this moment is so effective is because we care so deeply for George. He”s been a likable and relatable character throughout the film, and we have come to like him very much. We don’t want to see him in this much pain, and the emotion is palpable when he does. He is clearly a man who has lost everything and is ready to kill himself before Clarence, his guardian angel, intervenes. To this point in the film, Capra has developed a text book worthy story and equally worthy characters that not only allow the audience to become emotionally engaged, but the audience simply can’t help but be emotionally engaged in the struggles of this fine man.
It’s a Wonderful Life also has some of the best examples of planting and payoff. We see important things happen in the first act that don’t get 100% paid off until the film’s climactic moments. One of the first things that happens in the film is Young George saving the life of Young Harry when Harry falls through the ice of a frozen lake. This act causes George to lose the hearing in his right ear. Then for good measure we learn at the beginning near the end of the second act that Harry is getting the Congressional Medal of Honor for shooting down two Japanese planes that were just about to crash into a transport full of American soldiers. A few minutes after the scene in which Young George saves Harry’s life, we see him working his part time job in the local drug store. Mr. Gower, the druggist, drunk and despondent over a telegram he received with news of his son’s death, accidentally puts poison in some medicine meant for a young boy. George doesn’t deliver the pills, and Mr. Gower beats him for it until George points out that there’s poison in them.
These moments are all paid off when Clarence shows him a new reality of a world where George Bailey never existed. George sees a town now called Pottersville where decadence and mayhem rule the day. People are angry and bitter. He sees a drunken Mr. Gower and learns that he went to prison for 20 years for poisoning a kid. He sees the tombstone of Harry Bailey who broke through the ice at the age of 9 and was drowned. Further, every man on the transport died when Harry wasn’t there to save them because George wasn’t there to save Harry. He then sees Mary, a quiet and mousy old maid who never married and works as the local librarian. Seeing these things along with other signs finally shows George that he really does have a wonderful life, as Clarence points out, and that it would be a shame to throw it all away.
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those films that should be looked at with a fresh eye. To a degree it certainly has become something of a cliche, but looking at it purely as a well-fashioned and well-crafted film is still possible. It’s a Wonderful Life has an amazing script and is impeccably directed. And I never even got to the superb acting by Jimmy Stewart. All of the actors, particularly Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore gave sterling performances in It’s a Wonderful Life, but Stewart might have given the best performance of his career, and considering that he’s one of the greatest and most iconic actors of the 20th Century, that is certainly saying something.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a film that many people have seen many times. Perhaps it has become stale to you. Perhaps you think that there isn’t anything new in it for you. However, I would suggest watching this film after the Holidays. Don’t watch it as a Christmas movie. Just watch it for the fine cinematic experience that it is, and you may come away with a new appreciation for what is really one of the great films of all time.