Holiday Review: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
An individual may go through their entire life thinking themselves ordinary, when unbeknownst to them, they have had a tremendous impact on those around them. That is the driving lesson in one of the greatest holiday films ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, this 1946 film stars Jimmy Stewart in one of the greatest roles of his storied career as George Bailey. Bailey has never had anything in his life go the way he planned and on Christmas Eve he is driven to his lowest point. But thanks to divine intervention from an angel seeking his wings, his life is changed forever. Upon its initial release, this now revered classic was a commercial failure. But as has happened many times throughout history, It’s a Wonderful Life became a mainstay on television, especially during the holiday season. This led to a second life for the flick as audiences finally realized the brilliance of this classic.
From the POV of the angel Clarence we see the life of George Bailey from Bedford Falls, New York. Bailey has no shortage of ambition as he plans to leave his sleepy hometown and hit it big. But as often happens life takes another path from the one you planned. The death of his father forces George to remain in his hometown to run the family business and protect the townspeople from the greed of Mr. Potter. He marries love of his life Mary and they have large family further tying him to Bedford Falls. Sadly one Christmas Eve everything goes wrong which can go wrong and George contemplates whether or not it is worth going on with life. His guardian angel Clarence sees no other option but to intervene, because he will not be able to get his wings if George parishes. In order to change Bailey’s mind, Clarence shows him just how important he is to Bedford Falls by dropping him into a world where he never existed. Witnessing a timeline where his beloved town becomes Potterville, a hotspot for all vices, Bailey learns the importance he has played in the lives of those around him. With a renewed perspective George Bailey learns the true meaning of life is in those we love and cherish and that it is possible for one person to make a world of difference whether they know it or not.
Despite being forever tied to the Christmas season, Capra never intended on this film to be a “Christmas movie”. After serving in the Second World War, the director was searching for a project to inspire new hope and confidence in the American dream. Having made many films about the little guy standing up to those in power, this project which was gathering dust at the studio appealed to him. One of the most overlooked aspects of Capra’s work on this film is the world building he does. Under his guidance, Bedford Fall feels like a real lived in town full of quirks and familiar faces which George Bailey knows very well. There is a large cast of characters for Bailey to interact with and the way in which he does this truly cements the fact that he has lived here and known these people for years strengthening his ties to this community. While the third act of this film is what is ingrained in all of our memories, it everything that Capra set up before which pays off on that crucial Christmas Eve. I seriously doubt George Bailey’s plight would hit on such an emotional level if we had not spent so much time watching him grow into the man he is now; selling war bonds, falling into the pool at the dance, and ensuring the people of Bedford Falls were financially protected. But at the end of the day it is the holiday elements of the story which resonate, we have seen many stores of mean-spirited misers learning the meaning of Christmas, but It’s a Wonderful Life gives us a protagonist who is already a good guy, he just needs a little supernatural nudge to get him back on the right track and to realize how much he means to those around him.
Casting America’s favorite everyman Jimmy Stewart proved to be the perfect choice for this flick. Being one of those actors whom audiences can instantly identify with made George Bailey that much easier for people to invest emotionally in. But perhaps his boldest choice in casting was giving Donna Reed her very first starring role. The chemistry she shares with Stewart is undeniable. Whether they falling into the pool at a dance or honeymooning in a derelict old house, the duo make the perfect leads for this classic. Reed has that same quality as Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca or Marketa Irglova in the musical Once, which is an inexplicable magic beyond any mere physical appearance. You completely see why George Bailey is willing to throw a lasso around the moon for her.
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those rare classics, that not only hold up so many decades after its release, but it gets better with each successive viewing. Its power comes from the fact that it is 100% earnest and heartfelt in the story that it’s telling. Despite the director’s intention it has become forever entwined with the holiday season. I would be lying if I said I did not look forward to turning this classic on sitting on the couch with egg nog and enjoying it as a seasonal tradition. Given the inevitable stress and mental exhaustion which comes with this time of year, we all need a movie which kind of refocuses all of us on what’s truly important.