It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
by Steve Habrat
It’s a Wonderful Life ranks as one of my favorite films of all time. I fell in love with this film many, many years ago, allowing it to both carve a sweet spot out in my heart, but also finding it to be one of the most heartfelt movies I have ever laid my eyes on. I adore everything from the good-old-boy performance from James Stewart to the small town setting of the film. Doesn’t that town just feel so homey? Hell, even our contributor Charles Beall, who resides near Seneca Falls, sent me a photo of the famed bridge where George Bailey tries to end it all, the bridge all decked out and trimmed with Christmas lights. While the film’s message of savoring everything that surrounds us and using the backdrop of Christmas still resonates today, this is a sturdy production with sharp direction, bountiful sets, and a surprising romanticism that fails to be matched (“Do you want the moon, Mary?”). It still wows me that this film was made in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Hollywood was embracing film noir and grittier pictures rather than fantastic productions, as the world had seen the epitome of evil and destruction first hand during the war. And yet the pains of real life do hang over It’s a Wonderful Life, as suicide, hopelessness, and desperation all come up, it’s all handled with a compassionate sanguinity from director Frank Capra. Capra makes us feel George’s heart and soul breaking, and we fear he may be lost, but surprisingly, it’s not the religious tones that oddly lift the picture up and allow it to really soar. It’s George’s heart of gold.
George Bailey (Played by the marvelous Stewart) is a real stand-up guy, one who will go above and beyond for the people he loves and stand up to those who bully. After the sudden and tragic death of his father, George finds himself taking over his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. While George had dreams and aspirations to go off to college and travel the world, the board of directors beg him to stay and run the family company to keep it out of the hands of the ruthless and leering Henry F. Potter (Played by Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company who rejects giving home loans to the lower class workers of Seneca Falls. Potter desperately pleads with the board of directors to put an end to this but George consistently stands up to Potter. On the night that his father dies, George was wooing the beautiful Mary (Played by Donna Reed), who has liked him ever since he was a boy. George also had to watch as his brother Harry (Played by Todd Karns) goes off to college and gets married. George finally marries Mary, but finds himself sacrificing the honeymoon to keep the Building and Loan from collapse.
World War II soon erupts and Harry is drafted into the army as a fighter pilot and ends up being a war hero. George cannot enlist due to a bad ear, an accident from his childhood, so he stays in his hometown to hold down the Building and Loan. On Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy (Played by Thomas Mitchell) is on his way to make a deposit of $8,000 for the company when he bumps into Potter. Uncle Billy shows Potter a newspaper headline that says Harry has won the Medal of Honor. When Potter takes the newspaper, he finds the $8,000 hidden inside and keeps the money for himself. A frantic search breaks out to find the money and George finds himself at the mercy of Potter, who refuses to give him a loan to save the company. Potter then promises to have George arrested for bank fraud. As George’s world crashes around him, he begins to contemplate suicide and right as he is about to end it all, a guardian angle appears named Clarence (Played by Henry Travers) and begins showing George what life would be like without him around. If Clarence can save George, he will earn his wings he has desperately been working for.
A cozy film, It’s a Wonderful Life presents George as such a likable guy, its damn near impossible to find a flaw in him. You find yourself wanting to reach through the screen and give George a big bear hug to reassure him everything will be just fine. Potter is the epitome of a vile antagonist, a man you can’t bring yourself to see any kindness in. It’s heart wrenching to watch George realize his fate as he begs to be spared by Potter. It’s moments like this that portray the realism that cinema was trying to achieve after the war but it also is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film. The scene is bitter, cruel, pathetic, and quite possibly one of the most charged sequences I have seen in a motion picture. Yet the film eases the tension the whimsical appearance of Clarence, who comes in the nick of time and adds a much needed dash of fantastic. The ending of the film reminds us of the magic in the air come Christmas, and how it puts a spell over all of us. That is, if you are willing to believe in magic.
The Christmas aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life enters only at the end of the film, which may leave some who have never seen it to question why this is such a popular holiday film, but it is the spirit of kindness and giving that solidifies it’s place in holiday movie history. The way George Bailey lives his life, as a kind and warm soul, willing to go the extra mile, is a mentality that many of us only embrace around the holidays. What would happen if we embraced that attitude all the time? Why should it only be limited to the Christmas season? If only we could all be like George every day of the year. It’s his past actions that ultimately save his life by the end of the film, rather than Clarence, who is only there to provide examples.
Capra begins the film with a hand turning pages in an old story book and he molds it into an ethereal bedtime story for all ages. He does a hell of a job with the snow caked scenes at the end of this film, scenes that especially seem like they could have been ripped out of that old story book, sometimes so detailed they almost seem like a painting. I dare you to watch the scene of George Bailey running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, Christmas lights and artificial bells strung across the streets and trees, calling out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” and not help but think that would make a perfect Christmas card graphic or painting. Even though the film is shot in black and white, it remains eternal despite some dated dialogue. The film circumvents the cookie-cutter religious preaching and becomes a beacon of hope in humanity itself. Every time I see It’s a Wonderful Life, I swell with happiness and hope that kindness will reign supreme in the hearts and souls of every human being. With not one performance slacking and not one scene out of place, it’s a rare work of art that defines excellence. It really is the perfect film to watch with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, Christmas tree glowing bright, and snow quietly drifting down outside from the night sky. Who am I kidding? It’s the perfect film to watch anytime.
It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.