It’s a Wonderful Life
d. Frank Capra / 1946 / USA / 130 mins
Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s The Greatest Gift, It’s a Wonderful Life saw director Frank Capra reunited with James Stewart, allowing them to re-establish their cinematic careers, on hiatus since they were recruited into service for World War Two. Originally intended as a vehicle for Cary Grant, Capra’s involvement soon bore the trademark celebration of individualism that had defined his earlier works and made him one of the most celebrated directors of the 1930s. Although It’s a Wonderful Life would be overshadowed by William Wyler’s similarly titled The Best Years of Our Lives at the time of its release (the latter winning seven of that year’s Academy Awards), it’s popularity with audiences ballooned to mammoth proportions when it went out of copyright and was seen by a latter generation. It is now regarded as one of America’s finest films and has become associated with the holiday season, becoming a Christmas viewing tradition for families worldwide.
It’s a Wonderful Life acts as a reversal of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What remains surprising is that whilst Capra’s work is a celebration of Americana, saccharine and often sentimental, it often manages to be darker than its antecedent. Whilst Ebenezer Scrooge is an outcast, a man railing against society’s Christmas cheer, Stewart’s George Bailey is much the opposite. He too is visited by supernatural forces to remind him of the purpose and value of life but his role is sacrificial, the world he inhabits is ruled by the corporate greed of the immensely Scrooge-like Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and if it weren’t for his struggles, the world would be a thoroughly worse place for the citizens of his home town, Bedford Falls.
Stewart gives a fine depiction of a man caught between the perfection of the American ideal and the mental stress of maintaining that image and reality. The film’s finest and most surprising moments come when George turns against those he loves, his children and his wife (Donna Reed) and the emotional intensity of the two leads’ first kiss. The witty dialogue and self-assured screenplay ensure the more light hearted moments are full of charm and humour, but Stewart’s performance and Capra’s willingness to strip away pomp and sentimentality make George’s journey more realistic, unpredictable and most importantly, human.
This depiction of turmoil that George represents, that of the working, every-man, no doubt allows for It’s a Wonderful Life’s mass appeal and although cynics could argue that the film propagates the moral that its audience should be happy with their lot, sacrificing their dreams for the good of their community and demanding contentment, it’s also worth remembering that the film casts a scornful depiction of authoritarians and was (in 1947) discredited by the FBI for being sympathetic of communism. Perhaps most illuminating is how pertinent George’s trials feel to the current economic crisis and its relevance to modern perceptions of corporate greed and malicious bankers.
It’s a distinctive movie, and carries itself with a strange momentum. At just over two hours, most of the film is dedicated to a flash-back of sorts and the audience is given the opportunity to witness George’s life in surprising depth. It’s not hard to see why It’s a Wonderful Life has proved so successful with audiences and why it would so often be termed as being “inspirational”. Rather than feeling superfluous alongside A Christmas Carol, it works best as a counterpoint, a similar story told not from the perspective of Scrooge but that of the overworked Bob Cratchit, a small victory for those that find themselves under the heel of economic oppression.