Few movies have been watched or written about as much as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Being on the surface a warm and sentimental film about Christmas, its long popularity is understandable. However, most critics don’t usually take the time to analyze crowd pleasers in such detail. That’s because there’s much more to this movie than the usual fluff. The movie wasn’t all that popular when it was first released. It was passed up for the Best Picture Oscar by The Best Years of our Life because Capra’s film it was believed didn’t have sufficient artistic merit. And not everyone was sure what to make of a movie that combined fantasy with realism that seemed more befitting of a depression era film like Grapes of Wrath. Yet it’s still being watched (admittedly for the most part during the Holiday season) while The Best Years of our Life one would be lucky to find on late night television.
Just a brief recap since the story is so well known. George Bailey (James Stewart) wants “to shake the dust off of” Bedford Falls, the town where he was born and was destined to spend his entire life. While George wants to be an adventurer or soldier or architect designing great structures, he instead loses his hearing in one ear while saving his brother Harry, who has fallen through the ice (the loss of hearing preventing George from ever joining the military), and is forced to take over Bailey Building and Loan Company after his father’s death – because Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) is unsuited for such a role - to prevent the evil Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from taking control over the entire community. George does marry the girl of his dreams, Mary Hatch (Donna Reeds), but it’s only much later that he truly learns to appreciate her worth. Well, while Harry (Todd Karns) is off at the war winning all sorts of medals for saving American lives, George is stuck cleaning up the mess caused in part by Uncle Billy misplacing $8,000 in cash that coincidentally is discovered and confiscated by none other than Mr. Potter. George then gets drunk, crashes his car and in a suicidal mood decides to leap from the bridge into the snow-fed river.
It’s a good thing that George’s guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), shows up to show George a better way to look at his life. For Clarence shows George what life would have been like had George never been born. George’s wife, Mary, would have been a spinster living her life out as a timid librarian. The druggist that George worked for as a child would have spent years in prison after accidentally poisoning one of his customers. Violet (Gloria Grahame), the town flirt, would have instead ended up being a prostitute. An American ship would have gone down in the Pacific because Harry would not have been there to save the crew as George would not have been there to save Harry as a young boy. George’s mother (Beulah Bondi) would have been destitute since no one would have been there to protect her after he husband’s death. And Bedford Falls would have been renamed Pottersville and been occupied by gamblers and strippers and corrupt policemen instead of good and wholesome people like the Baileys. Clarence’s visit makes George understand his own self-worth while also instilling in George a sense of gratitude for his own life. George then returns to Mary and his children to discover that a miracle has indeed occurred. George’s friends raise the $8,000 that was lost that in the end prevents George from going to jail for various security violations. And Clarence, for his exemplary way of handling George’s situation, finally earns his wings.
So it’s the movies supposed pessimism that makes the hard boiled critics from the New York Times and Boston Globe, not to mention the college professors, continue to write about this film. Indeed, in the 130 minutes of this film, we are treated to displays of drunkenness, lasciviousness, poverty, depression and suicidal thinking. We very nearly see the world controlled by the likes of Mr. Potter and his policy of foreclosing on every such sucker that signs up for one of his loans. Yet the cynicism that has or will continue to sink so many heavily awarded films that will be remembered only in the pages of almanacs or encyclopedias is completely and refreshingly lacking in It’s a Wonderful Life. The story is farfetched. Outside of the appearances of Lionel Barrymore, there’s not a lot of great acting here (though it’s probably some of the best acting in the long career of Jimmy Stewart). Much of the humor will only get us a polite laugh. There is a great deal of naiveté in this film as there is in every Capra film. And we are certainly treated to the most cloying of sentimentality in many different scenes. Yet its Capra’s employment of the use of melodrama in the same manner as is depicted in a Dickens’ novel that makes this movie so vibrant and magnificently alive. Only during his lowest moments does George Bailey ever indulge in hopelessness or the belief that things somehow could not be better. And despite the movie’s light-heartedness at the movie’s ending, Capra never fails to take his subject matter seriously or question whether the ride of life was worthwhile. Prayers are uttered in this movie and prayers are answered – if not always in the way one would expect. Capra still believes in a magical world where good will triumph.
That will not suffice for the reviewers or for many of the viewing public who do not want to see good deeds going unpunished. Just saying that George has made sacrifices will probably not be enough for these individuals, though in their own simplicity they fail to see beyond the surface of this film, also. These viewers will thus turn to other fare more suitable towards their intellectual needs. For them, we still have films showing decapitations, loveless marriages and lack of human warmth – films that make large amount of money at least on the short-term at the box office, but that will not be watched again in a season or two … let alone in more than sixty years.
© Robert S. Miller 2009