by Logan Gion
It’s a Wonderful Life
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell
Though it flopped upon initial release, It’s a Wonderful Life was shown on television during Christmas because of its cheap exhibition rights. The movie picked up a healthy following by the 1960’s, but, after Republic Pictures let the copyright lapse in 1970, It’s a Wonderful Life became ubiquitous during the holiday season because cable channels could show it for free! The Chicago Tribune called it the “greatest holiday movie of all time,” Rotten Tomatoes scores the movie at 93% for critics and 95% for audiences, and IMDb lists it at #21 in its Top 250 Movies Ever Made. It’s a Christmas movie that seemingly every American has seen ad nauseam…
…except me! My parents had the family watch A Christmas Story instead, so this cinematic gap grew larger each year than the hole in a Boy Scout Christmas wreath. No more! This month, I’m not only checking off this James Stewart classic, I’m brushing up on…
Everyone in the town of Bedford Falls is praying for George Bailey on Christmas Eve. The fervor is such that cosmic entities get involved, believing that this is the perfect opportunity for Clarence, one of their subordinates, to earn his angelic wings. Before Clarence can do his job, however, the heavens give him a crash course on George’s life.
With that, the audience and Clarence are transported back to 1919, when George shows his first act of selflessness. From there, we get anecdotes from his life, showing how much George has given up so that his family and town can prosper.
Fast-forwarding to “present-day” 1946, George’s eccentric uncle has made a colossal error that could put the Baileys out of business, George in jail, George’s family in destitution, and the town of Bedford Falls in the clutches of greedy venture capitalist Mr. Potter. To ensure his family’s reputation and financial safety, George plans to take his own life and let his wife, Mary, collect the life insurance (a disturbingly common plot device in 1940’s dramas).
Can Clarence convince George to live despite the odds stacked against him? Will this task finally give Clarence his wings? Will the town George has given his life for be able to lift him out of his circumstances? Maybe it’d be better if George hadn’t been born at all…
This movie runs 130 minutes, 100 of which I thought deserved the “wonderful” title. I was taken in by the well-drawn, organic character drama presented in the first hour and a half. Jimmy Stuart and Donna Reed make a fabulous lead pair that sell the audience on their all-American family dream. This normally hokey suburban fantasy works here because, for much of the movie, it’s NOT what George Bailey wants; it’s what he’s settling for. He wants to travel the world, then become an architect. He shows so much promise, too, smartly redesigning his high-school’s gymnasium. Every time his ship comes in, though, someone else needs the ticket: his brother, his father, his hometown, his family. This tug of war between a young person’s desires and responsibilities is timelessly appealing. At first, I thought this would play out like an Arthur Miller play (We all live lives of quiet tragedy). Only when George’s run-of-the-mill life ALSO vanishes before his eyes does he realize what he stands to lose. From Mary’s perspective, she works hard to make her picket-fence fantasy come true. She foregoes her honeymoon, improves a rundown mansion, and raises four children. When George finally lets life’s misfortunes get to him, the audience both grieves with him and cheers when Mary stands up for herself. Their mutual love yet conflicting desires make for crackling drama.
Likewise, the climax rings true near 80 years later because the Bailey family doesn’t get a perfectly happy ending, but rather a realistic one that they’ve earned. I was left with misty-eyed joy for the Bailey family, and I was satisfied with the cathartic ending. I especially like that not all evildoers are punished just as not all of George and Mary’s problems are solved. George has simply reached a point in his life where he can be proud of what he, his wife, and his hometown have accomplished. He can also be thankful for the gifts he has, rather than the opportunities that he’s missed.
This leaves the remaining half hour: Clarence’s screen time. As someone who only knew about the self-harm, Christmas, and supernatural elements of this movie, I had no idea they were confined to so small a section. The word Christmas isn’t even uttered until over halfway through the runtime! Angels don’t even appear until the 100-minute mark. The entire structure feels wonky, and, had I gone into this movie blindly, the Christmas angle (and angel) would’ve seemed out of left field. Honestly, calling It’s a Wonderful Life a Christmas movie would be like saying the original Star Wars trilogy stars Jabba the Hutt. He’s in it, sure, but he’s far from top billing.
The movie would’ve been much more effective had it either gone all in on the Christmas season or cut it out entirely. In the first scenario, just have these life events happen around Christmas. That way, there’d at least be more cohesion. In the second version, make Clarence a more enigmatic figure that never identifies what he is. Making Clarence a mysterious manifestation of Bedford Falls’ thankfulness for all that George has given the town would add artistic depth and lessen the jarring, literal dues-ex machina effect of the film’s third act. Going either direction would’ve made for a leaner film, and a stronger viewing experience. Ironically, scrubbing Christmas from the movie would rob it of its holiday viewing status. Giving it the full Christmas treatment, conversely, would’ve made for better word of mouth, making the film too expensive to be shown on television in the first place. At the end of the day, I guess I should be happy with the movie that is rather than the movie that could’ve been.
Call it a Christmas miracle–I think most adults can still find value in this film. Why? Because the problems the Bailey family faces are still relevant today. I knew going in that Mr. Potter was the film’s villain, but his deeds would give both Ebenezer Scrooge and The Grinch pause. Early on, the film shows Mr. Potter treating his tenants like cattle, and a later deed has him stealing money from mentally ill people. His argument? The working class is lazy. Giving them houses would teach them to be societal leeches. Sound familiar?
George Bailey, conversely, gives a rousing speech about Mr. Potter’s customers that many can identify with today: “They had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what?! Until their children grow up and leave them?”
Also refreshing in this movie is the minority representation for its time. Mary, the female lead, saves George, his business, and her family before the day is through, giving her plenty of agency. Linda, a person of color, gets a distinct personality and most of the movie’s best lines. Violet, the town heartbreaker, is unapologetic when it comes to her dating life yet respectful of George and his morals. Finally, George is hard of hearing, of which the movie reminds the audience, but doesn’t diminish George’s accomplishments, status, or humanity.
I say “for its time,” though, because there are plenty of dated aspects: George inappropriately teases an indisposed Mary in one scene, Linda fits neatly into “The Help” archetype, and the drug-store owner boxes a young George’s ear knowing that the boy’s still recovering. I’d hesitate to show kids this “family” movie unless there was a discussion afterwards.